John Whitcomb is working on a new type of football helmet that he says will greatly reduce neck injuries and concussions.

The founder of Whitcomb Technologies, who’s also a doctor, notes some high schools are “already abandoning football,” but that his Whitcomb Air Helmet could make a difference.

“My testing shows that my helmet can reduce the concussion force in the first .001 seconds by 80 percent,” he said. “Properly engineered and manufactured, we can do even better.”

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Whitcomb’s idea for safer headwear stemmed from something that he uses on a daily basis: his iPhone. When protected with a rubber lining, the force with which it hits a cement floor with decreases, and the phone doesn’t shatter, he said.

“My idea, that I now have patented, came from that — to put air cells on the outer surface of a helmet, making the resilient air cells the point of impact, not a rigid plastic like current helmets,” Whitcomb said.

That, he said, gives the helmet two functions. One is to distribute the force of a blow over the “whole surface of the fragile skull,” which is what helmets already do. But the second, and new, function is to add deceleration, he said.

The idea could even go further than sports, Whitcomb said, listing broader audiences such as seniors, the mentally ill and physically disabled, the military and even some workplaces.

“Imagine being a construction worker and having a helmet on. Imagine a bolt dropping 100 feet from a construction site,” he said. “Your helmet will distribute force now. How about kids with seizures or folks with recent neurosurgery? Consider how many injuries coming out of the military right now are head injuries. The idea has lots of positive implications.”

Whitcomb got top honors last year at the Wisconsin Early Stage symposium, where he pitched his business and received advice on his company.

“I won two prizes in the Elevator Pitch Olympics contest,” Whitcomb said. “So I got great publicity.”

Whitcomb acknowledges he isn’t the only one in his field, noting there are “lots of talented people adding ideas.” But he said his idea of air bags addresses the issue best, as they’re “masters of slowing down and pushing back without adding weight.”

“In my wildest dreams, 10 years down the road I envision many helmets on this planet will be made with this technology,” he said.

By Kory Seymour,
Seymour is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.