One company's game-changing solution helps prevent football injuries
At Guardian Innovations, Erin and Lee Hanson aim to make sports safer
This story is part of The Pursuit, a series in which small business owners share insights on how they build their enterprises—and follow their dreams, brought to you by Chase for Business.
Erin and Lee Hanson, with their company Guardian Innovations, have a mission: improve equipment for athletes. Current hard-shelled helmets in football, lacrosse and hockey can often be used as a weapon on the playing fields.
"We know there is a problem, and we know that there is a solution," says Erin. "We need to do something about it."
Finding a fix
It all began when the Hansons, who own several companies in suburban Atlanta that make a range of coatings and products that are applied to everything from rocket boosters to golf balls, were approached by a helmet manufacturer. Their client wanted to produce a flexible helmet for professional football teams.
While the novel helmet didn't garner any industry interest, the Hansons were intrigued. Lee, who has a chemical engineering degree from Georgia Tech, and his wife, with 20 years of experience in the material sciences field, were determined to design their own solution. So they switched gears, taking a fresh look at helmet engineering and creating a detachable padded cap that augments, but didn't alter, the hard-shelled helmet beneath it. And the helmet would be used in practices, changing nothing about game day uniforms.
The ultimate solution
Investing more than $100,000 from their company, the Hansons felt they had a winner with the Guardian Cap, a soft, waffle-like padded cover that that fits over any existing standard helmet. The caps almost resemble the geodesic domes designed by Buckminster Fuller and they work like a bumper on a car. The lightweight outer cover reduces the impact up to 33% on helmet blows, whether it's hitting the turf, a body or another helmet.
"It's physics and common sense," says Lee. "If I was going to slam a helmet against your hand on a table, it's common sense that you'd like a pad on top of your knuckles before the helmet hit you."
More than 50 colleges now use the Guardian Caps in practice. More than 60,000 have been sold to youth leagues, high schools and universities.
Coaches are fans. "It has really helped our injury rates drop—there has been a clear and statistically significant difference," says Jeff Thomas, head football coach at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.
And so are the men on the field. "The players like having them on," said Ron Planz, head football coach and Elmhurst College in Illinois.
Looking beyond football
After launching the Guardian Caps, the Hansons began considering the safety of other players and sports. Particularly the game of lacrosse, and the characteristics of lacrosse balls. Their son plays goalie for Georgia Tech's team, where balls can come at him up to 90mph. Current rubber balls harden over time, like your car tires, so Guardian created a pure polyurethane ball that never greases and never hardens. It's become accepted as the official ball by the sport's governing body.
In on the ground level
And the Hansons are looking at player environments too. Taking on another safety issue: infill for artificial turf. Those little black pellets that kids bring home in their shoes are made from recycled tires. There are health concerns regarding crumbed rubber, which have led the Hansons to develop a bio-based infill, softened with corn and soy oils. They also added a reflective agent to keep fields cooler
"Changing an industry takes time," Erin says. "It takes time to prove yourself and to get people to accept changing the look of their sport - even if it's just in practice. But I think it's an effort that's worthwhile."
As the Hansons recently emerged as one of two winners for a prestigious research award, set up to find innovative ways to improve football player safety, it's looking like those efforts are paying off.
Charles Wallace is a Chase contributor and a New York-based journalist who has written about finance and other topics for Time Magazine, The Financial Times, Institutional Investor and Money magazines.