Comcast NBCUniversal is a proud sponsor of the National Football League’s 1st and Future startup competition. Since 2013, the NFL has annually awarded three startups $50,000 in the categories of Advancements in Protective Equipment, New Therapies to Speed Recovery, and Technology to Improve Athletic Performance.
One of this year’s three winners, Impressio, is a novel material, made of polymers infused with liquid crystals, that can absorb more energy than typical plastic and help prevent brain injuries in football.
Liquid crystals may sound like a fantastical, even made-up, substance; but if you’re reading this article, you’re likely already looking at them. (Yes, LCD screens and televisions stands for Liquid Crystal Display.)
Now they might be coming to football fields across the country.
University of Colorado – Denver biomedical engineer Chris Yakacki, PhD was investigating materials for implants that can change shape once inside the body, including a device for ACL reconstruction. Once Yakacki made the move back to academia in Denver, a colleague suggested checking out liquid crystals and their impressive shape-changing traits.
In 2014, Yakacki reconnected with former post-grad classmate Carl Pieter Frick, PhD from the University of Wyoming and the two created a new material that may change football forever.
Impressio is a soft polymer made of liquid crystals that holds ultra-dissipative properties – for instance, dampening and absorbing energy at an unprecedented level. Yakacki and Frick are betting that placing the incredible material inside a football helmet can substantially reduce the risk of concussions and brain trauma for players.
“We knew it was a unique material,” Yakacki said. “It can change its shape and act as a biological shock absorber.”
The pair spoke to the equipment manager for the football team at University of Colorado – Boulder, who said that the two main complaints with football helmets are comfort and preventing brain trauma.
“The thing about our material is that it’s soft and absorbs energy. That’s when the gears started to click,” Yakacki said.
Yakacki and Frick quickly turned their focus to reimagining football helmets.
“We were lucky to be in academia, where you’re used to looking for funding,” Frick said. “At a university the focus is on translating research into a useful product.”
Both faculty members are currently on sabbatical as they work to bring Impressio to market.
“The university told us to go out, commercialize it, and make an impact,” Yakacki said.
The buzz around Impressio is already beginning, especially since the company won the NFL 1st & Future competition.
“What’s great about the material is that you don’t need to fundamentally redesign the helmet – which a lot of people have tried before,” Frick said. “What makes our technology more beneficial is that it is readily applicable by replacing the padding in an eclectic way.”
So how does it work exactly? Liquid crystals are shaped like ovals at the molecular level and act like spinning wheels when impacted. When you attach the liquid crystals into a polymer or rubber, that spinning behavior uses and absorbs that energy upon energy.
“To give a visual, if you put liquid crystals in a rubber ball, it goes from bouncing on the ground to landing inert,” Frick said.
The next step for Yakacki and Frick is running tests and accumulating data to support Impressio’s remarkable properties and potential benefit for football padding. Impressio could also be implemented for protection in other fields, including military, construction, and other sports.
“Our job now is to prove that it works,” Yakacki said. “We have less than a year to go in prototyping and putting it into helmets.
“In the next year we want to approach any helmet manufacturer or team and say, ‘We took your helmet and made it better.’”
The NFL, Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs, NBC Sports, and SportsEngine look to continue to play a role in fostering startups with the potential to change how people play and watch sports.
“Each of the 1st & Future winners demonstrates the innovative spirit of entrepreneurship that we value at Comcast NBCUniversal,” said Sam Schwartz, Chief Business Development Officer at Comcast Cable. “We are proud to participate in this important event to help support these entrepreneurs.”
Seattle Seahawks star quarterback Russell Wilson was on hand at 1st & Future and got a glimpse of the material himself. In a few years, he may just be protected by it too.
“We want people to look back at the helmets today and think they look, the same way we think about ‘90’s cell phones today,” Yakacki said.
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