It’s getting tougher to ignore the concussion problem in amateur and professional football. (Case in point: December’s Will Smith–starring Concussion, based on Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.) While the number of NFL concussions has dropped over the last few years, 2014 still saw 123 reported head injuries. Dr. Samuel Browd finds a lack of advancement in helmet technology largely to blame. The neurosurgeon turned entrepreneur explains how human brain research led to his company’s development of a new helmet that could help save young lives.
1989–2000: Mind Over Matter
After conducting memory experiments on rats while in high school, Samuel Browd enrolled at the University of Florida where he observed surgery on epilepsy patients and used MRI to study memory structures in the brain. “I was mesmerized by the ability to take out someone’s brain and actually make them better,” he remembers. Later, in medical school, he completed a dissertation on Olympic athletes, golfers, and Blue Angels pilots using visual imaging to improve individual performance.
2000–07: Working With Kids
Browd’s residency at the University of Utah was supposed to focus on Parkinson’s and epilepsy treatment. But three years in he met Dr. Marion Walker, the “godfather of pediatric neurosurgery,” and found his life’s calling. “It felt amazing to take care of kids,” says Browd, who soon after switched his research focus toward pediatrics, leading him to a fellowship at Seattle Children’s.
2007–09: The Seattle Spirit
Seattle Children’s offered Browd a job three months into his fellowship, and he decided to stay, due in part to the city’s entrepreneurial spirit. “People are really trying to change the world here,” he says. This led him to the board of the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington and, later, a director position at the Sports Concussion Clinic.
2010–13: Inspiration and Innovation
While sitting in a meeting “listening to stuff about helmets,” Browd was struck by the clear lack of innovation over the last decade. He sketched a prototype onto a napkin and brought it to Dr. Per Reinhall, chair of the medical engineering department at the University of Washington. The goal was clear: Reduce concussion risk by 50 percent. “But I didn’t want to do a science project,” says Browd. He wanted to create something real and understood that in order to do so he would have to commercialize.
With new partners in entrepreneur Dave Marver and Seattle-based tech design firm Artefact, Browd formed Vicis. The new company secured more than $5 million in funding to develop a safer and aesthetically pleasing new football helmet. “People aren’t going to wear a big dumbo helmet,” Browd contends. With support from the scientific community and the NFL, the new Vicis helmet will make its debut with a handful of players in the 2016 season.