Snuggled near Amazon's shimmering South Lake Union campus is a nondescript, white, single-storied building. Inside, another potential disruptor is at work meticulously designing and relentlessly testing its technology with mechanisms used by the U.S. Army (for which it manufactures helmets) and the NFL (for which it is better known for manufacturing helmets).
As awareness around concussions increases at all levels of football, more programs are trying to find the edge, not just against their competition, but in the health of their players, too. Soon, the VICIS "SmashLab" – where they test helmets the same way the NFL does – just might be the place where your football-playing children's helmets are designed and tested, too. If you can afford one.
The company promises a revolutionary technology that bends and buckles similar to a car bumper to reduce impact, as opposed to traditional hard-shell helmets. But its signature Zero1 helmet retails for $950, while the newly released youth model goes for $495 – both more expensive than their competitors, often by a wide margin.
In three years, the start-up has achieved astronomical growth. The Zero1 helmet has beaten out its legacy competitors in impact tests by the NFL and Virginia Tech for three years running. A recent Harborview Medical Center study – the first field test at the high-school level – showed a statistically significant decrease in concussions when teams adopted the VICIS helmet (though it wasn't able to be directly attributed to the helmets). It's expected to be worn by players on all 32 NFL teams and more than 125 collegiate programs next season.
As VICIS (pronounced VY-sis, which means change in Latin) ventures into youth and high-school football, programs that don't have the budgets of NFL or college teams have had to get creative in how to afford the headgear. But the end goal, CEO Dave Marver said, has always been to bring the helmets to the youth and high-school level. The Zero1 Youth is the first helmet specifically designed for the kids who use it, rather than just "adult helmets with lightweight shells."
"Sure, the 2,000 NFL players were important," Marver said. "But there are millions of kids that are playing now. That's our cause. This is what drives us."
The Northwest Junior Football League was a natural early adopter. A youth league in VICIS's backyard, the NWJFL has been on the forefront of player safety. Teams limit contact in practice and teach safe tackling techniques. Before every game, players from each side meet and go over safety rules. As part of an ongoing study into concussions in youth football, a certified athletic trainer is on the sideline of every game.
For a year, VICIS worked closely with Eastside Junior Football and the Ballard Knights in developing the youth helmet. Each program had a connection: a former Eastside teacher who went on to help launch the VICIS helmet and a Ballard parent who worked alongside one VICIS co-founder at Seattle Children's Hospital.
"No one has designed from the ground-up just for kids before," Marver said. "This is attuned for lower-impact velocities, it's thicker in the temple, where the skull is not as well developed."
After receiving constant feedback from players – too heavy, the chin strap was uncomfortable, the forehead too tight – and implementing the changes, it was showtime.
Players from the Eastside Junior Crusaders, Ballard Knights and Everett Junior Wildcats took part in a promotional shoot for more than 12 hours at Eastside Catholic High School one day last year to introduce the Zero1 Youth model. The coaches were ecstatic; the kids loved the cameras and free swag.
While Everett and Eastside, associated with private high schools, have outfitted their players with VICIS helmets, Ballard has turned to crowdsourcing to fund the helmets, but remains thousands of dollars shy.
The cost to outfit an entire youth team runs between $40,000 and $50,000 (it's nearly twice that at the high-school level), money that non-profit programs such as Ballard and those from less affluent areas don't have sitting around. Everett got creative, fundraising to buy the helmets and offering parents a discounted rate of $250 to rent them.
"I look at VICIS, and while it's expensive, no doubt about it," Ballard president and coach Andrew Muller said, "... I look at it like, hey if there's something that's been proven and tested to be better – and significantly at that – we have to get our kids into them."
At West Seattle, Earnest Phillips recently paid about $80 per helmet to re-fit his roster. For a program that doesn't have the built-in donors of Eastside or the engaged, affluent community of Ballard, VICIS was never an option.
"You can't ignore the price," said Phillips, whose organization uses its limited funds first to provide scholarships that allow for kids to play. "Fifty thousand dollars is two years of our operating cost."
Michael Shigley, the longtime president and coach of the Eastside Junior Crusaders, boasts the first-ever Zero1 Youth helmet – with the serial number to prove it. His Crusaders have led the charge in implementing safety standards for their league, even partnering with VICIS and another youth league in California to create a yet-to-be-implemented "gold standard" for safety in youth football.
That measure would take a combined look at the coaching techniques (for example, heads-up football and rugby tackling), practice standards (limiting physical contact and maximizing recovery time) and equipment, such as the VICIS helmets, to assess programs.
It's the former two that many say matter most – and are most achievable.
"The helmets are important, but it's one of many things," said Marver, the VICIS CEO. "It's tackling techniques, it's vigilance, it's ways of coaching, ways of practicing."
Getting the VICIS helmets on the heads of every, or even many, players below the college level, where seven-figure budgets turn into four- and five-figure budgets, presents another challenge.
Private schools have been the primary adopters so far: O'Dea, Bishop Blanchet, Eastside Catholic. Mercer Island, an affluent public school, too.
Across the country, players at more than 1,200 high schools will wear the VICIS Zero1 in 2019, but most are individually purchased. One California school district ordered 400 helmets – but it was funded by a large donation. According to one sales rep, many high schools won't even hear the presentation. Those that do often come back for more the next year.
As it has expanded, VICIS has nearly halved the cost of its adult helmet, which started at $1,500 and can now be had in bulk for around $700 each. Marver expects that to continue. The three-year-old start-up also has its own foundation to help curb costs.
"Our prices are always going to be more than the competition because we have so much more engineering and R&D in them," he said. "But it's very important to us that they're still affordable. We'd like to be 10-20% more expensive (than the competition), ultimately."