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UW Researcher Part of Winning Innovation Pitch to NFL

February 8, 2018
Men pose for a photo around check
UW's Carl Frick, second from left, holds a check for winning an NFL innovation challenge. He is joined by company cofounder Chris Yakacki (far right), NFL quarterback Russell Wilson (far left) and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (third from left). (Photo courtesy NFL)

Carl Frick enjoys the game of football, and his research could play a role in ensuring the longevity of the sport.

Frick, the department head of mechanical engineering at the University of Wyoming, is among founders of Impressio, a start-up company that aims to redefine energy dissipation in helmets to help prevent concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Along with company co-founder Chris Yakacki, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver, Frick has spent the last four years creating materials which could be used as helmet padding to absorb force created during game play.

Frick and Yakacki impressed a panel of medical experts and venture capitalists at "1st and Future," a startup competition. The presentation took place in Minneapolis during Super Bowl week Jan. 29-Feb. 4, and the competition called for companies to pitch solutions for safety issues facing the game. Impressio won for its submission in the category of “Advancements in Protective Equipment.” It has developed liquid-crystal elastomers (LCEs) that can be put in helmet padding to absorb energy from hits. More than 100 sports-related startups applied to participate, and nine finalists were chosen to make stage presentations.

According to statistics, players in the National Football League suffered 281 concussions this season. Thanks to a heightened awareness of brain injuries, the league is looking for solutions to boost player safety. Improving the material in the game’s most vital piece of protection equipment is the focus of Impressio’s research.

"I have experience designing biomedical devices from novel materials as a researcher at Abbott Vascular prior to joining UW,” Frick says. “Actually, this is the thread that ties all our founding members of Impressio together. We’re not all academics, but we all have experience in designing biomedical devices from scratch. In this regard, we all have experience translating basic research to product lines.

“That being said, none of us have ever been as excited about the potential of a material as we are about liquid-crystalline elastomers,” he adds. “Football helmets will hopefully be just Step One. Looking towards the Winter Olympics, I can’t help but picture our foams working very well because we can tailor them to being energy absorbing both at body temperature like regular helmets and at freezing temperatures. For the future, protective equipment for other sports and for military applications all seem like natural fits.”

Frick says the $50,000 in prize money from 1st and Future will be used for proof-of-concept testing using established helmet designs. Frick and Yakacki have been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army Research Office, among others. The next step includes persuading helmet makers to test Impressio’s technology.

“Right now, the start-up is very young, and this is our first major grant,” Frick says. “We can now take a commercially available helmet, rip out the foam padding, add in our own LCE foam of the exact same size, shape and weight, then test at an independent laboratory at Virginia Tech to National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment standards.

“This will allow us to compare apples-to-apples, and show proof of concept that our material is better at absorbing impact energy,” he says. “To be clear, we’re not proposing an after-market product, but rather, we want to partner with helmet manufacturers to use our foam instead of what they are currently using.”

Frick has been a UW faculty member since 2008. His research involves integration of materials science, bioengineering, and mechanical engineering to characterize new materials for use in emerging technologies. Some of his current projects focus on exploring the mechanical behavior of materials, with specific interests in metallic and polymer biomaterials, shape-memory materials, and nanometer-scale materials.

He says both UW and the College of Engineering and Applied Science are great environments for cultivating entrepreneurship and innovation. These opportunities involve students and faculty to use their research to branch out and pursue business opportunities.

“There’s so much support and encouragement at UW in these areas, and with the recent success of our faculty and students, more of this innovation is sure to follow,” Frick says. “The last four years of research in my lab with Ph.D. students Dan Merkel and Rajib Shaha, and undergraduate students Viren Patel and Jason Young on LCE directly dovetailed into what we’re using at Impressio.

“We were very excited by this newfound material that Yakacki invented, and we’ve been scientifically investigating the polymer chemistry for a long time to perfect our understanding,” he adds. ”Now, we can manipulate the polymer chemistry to tailor mechanical properties. This material can be shape-shifting, can change optical properties, and is very energy absorbing, especially for a broad range of temperatures which we can manipulate.”


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