Origins: The story of MIPS, helmet technology for brain-injury prevention
MIPS, the Multi-directional Impact Protection System, is a pretty unassuming piece of gear — a thin layer that sits within a bike helmet to reduce rotational forces in the case of a crash. MIPS can now be found in some top-end helmets but as Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom writes in this Origins piece, the technology was first devised in the mid-’90s and is a rare example of academic research being turned into a viable commercial product.
The bicycle industry is possibly an unusual avenue for commercialising academic research, but that was where the work of two Swedish scientists eventually gained its strongest foothold. The two men behind the invention of MIPS weren’t thinking about cyclists; they had a much broader goal in preventing traumatic brain injuries.
One of the inventors, Hans von Holst, is a neurosurgeon in the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. After performing surgeries on so many injured brains, he saw the pressing need for prevention strategies, which lead him to helmets.
Peter Halldin, an engineer from the Schools of Technology and Health, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm had a background in aeronautics and might not have ever considered working on brain-injury-prevention strategies. However, one meeting with von Holst convinced him to not only start working on the problem, but to pursue a PhD in the process.
The collaboration between von Holst and Halldin was a novel undertaking at the time. Neurosurgeons and engineers don’t share a common language, but a multidisciplinary approach was exactly what was needed to conceive, test and prove the value of a low friction layer as a new brain injury prevention strategy.
In the beginning
The first steps towards the invention of MIPS were taken in 1995. Hans von Holst was chairing research at the Karolinska University Hospital, where the primary aim was to create new equipment for preventing head injuries. He was getting bogged down in technical discussions with his colleagues when it dawned on him that they should be speaking to engineers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.
Barely 2km separate the two esteemed institutes, nevertheless, von Holst recalls that the suggestion was met with a great deal of scepticism:
“When I said to my surgical colleagues, ‘I have to go through engineers,’ they said, ‘That’s crazy, why do you want to do that?’ Well, I want to solve the problem. We have a big problem: we just operate on traumatic brain injuries but we don’t do anything to prevent it.”
Peter Halldin was one of the engineers that von Holst visited with at KTH. Lured by the prospect of bridging different disciplines, Halldin decided to start a PhD in the field of biomechanics to work on the problem posed by von Holst.
“We came to the idea of the MIPS concept as I was reading about the anatomy of the head and the brain, the way the brain can slide inside the skull,” said Halldin. “I thought we could put something into a helmet and we made some simple experiments.”
The MIPS concept is a relatively simple one: a low-friction layer positioned in-between the skull and the helmet absorbs some of the rotational forces generated by an oblique (or angular) impact typically associated with a passenger falling from a bike.
The concept was just one of a few ideas that Halldin was working on at the time, but as the initial experiments started providing encouraging data, he devoted more time to the idea. Nevertheless, it remained a side-project for a few years.
“I was always a little sceptical to start with that soon I would get a result that will tell me that the system won’t work, because I thought it was too good in the beginning,” recalled Halldin. “After the experiments at Birmingham University, I understood that the concept could really make a difference.”
Those definitive experiments were performed in collaboration with Nigel Mills, who had the kind of equipment required to formally test the effectiveness of the MIPS concept. A police helmet served as the first application of the low friction layer and the results were published in 2001.
The researchers had tackled the issue of oblique impacts and measured the resulting rotational forces on the head. By positioning a low-friction layer between the head and the helmet, they were able to reduce rotational forces by up to 50%, giving hope for a reduction of the risk of concussion.
Encouraged by the outcome, von Holst and Halldin applied for a patent for the MIPS concept in 2002, which was granted in 2003.
Tackling commercialisation of the research
At the time Peter Halldin was collaborating with Hans von Holst, there had been a change in the academic environment, both in Sweden and around the world. While governments and universities were still in favour of pure research, there was a growing expectation to commercialise the work wherever possible.
“Hans von Holst has always been an entrepreneur and he told us we should always try to commercialise where we can,” explained Halldin. “The Swedish government was also encouraging researchers to think about the commercial potential for our research.”
The first step was to keep the project funded. “The MIPS concept has been self-selling from day one,” said Halldin. “Sometimes, I was really surprised at how easy it was to convince people of the potential of the concept.”
That doesn’t mean investors were throwing money at the idea. A series of small short-term grants was used to finish the lab work and patent the concept but it wasn’t enough to provide long-term security for the project. Nevertheless, the researchers had the forethought to establish a company in 1998 to support work on MIPS and other concepts, including plans for commercialisation.
While it’s fair to say that researchers are generally innovative thinkers, few have the entrepreneurial drive and business experience to usher an invention all the way to market. Peter Halldin felt ready to tackle the challenge of getting the MIPS concept to market, but looking back, he now understands how unprepared he was.
“It was up and down in the beginning and we have been really, really, really close to not surviving,” said Halldin. “Everything that can go wrong will go wrong, is what I learnt. It was the commercial part with the problems with production and so on. And the price was high, that was the tricky part of getting this brilliant idea into cost-effective production.”
While Halldin and von Holst had complete command of the science behind MIPS, managing a startup company was much more difficult, and funding was an ongoing issue. “There were two times when the company was about to collapse,” said von Holst, “but we were rescued by new money from insurance companies.”
Halldin refers to the backing of insurance companies as “smart” money for the project, as distinct from the funding from venture capitalists. It was a sure sign of belief in the potential of the MIPS concept, and it kept the small startup company (which went public in 2001) going from 2002 to 2008.
By 2005, the company (now known as MIPS AB) had managed to overcome all of the hurdles to start manufacturing the MIPS layer, but it couldn’t find any customers. “That’s when we realised that the market wasn’t really ready for the concept,” said Halldin, “and that’s why it was taking so long.”
Working with the bicycle industry
John Thompson is the helmet product manager at Scott Sports. Part of his job is to keep an eye on emerging technologies and entertain pitches from hopeful startup companies. Scott Sports wasn’t the first company to discover MIPS, but it was the first to bring MIPS to mainstream consumers.
“Things had been very static [in the helmet market] for a number of years,” explained Thompson. “All manufacturers were focused on was making helmets lighter and more ventilated and in the end, all they really succeeded in doing was making their helmets very expensive to manufacture.
“When MIPS came along, there was a growing appetite for safety, so the public was more willing to accept a weight penalty or pay little extra for more security.
“We saw the potential quite early. We saw it as a great opportunity to make our helmets safer. We definitely weren’t one of the first though. There were a few brands offering expensive helmets with MIPS to niche customers, but we wanted to introduce MIPS to more mainstream users at more affordable prices.”
That doesn’t mean that the company was entirely convinced that MIPS would be a success. “We have to be sceptical at the claims that certain technology suppliers make,” explained Thompson, “however after visiting the MIPS HQ in Stockholm and seeing first-hand the science and testing behind the technology, we were convinced.
“Another big plus for us was the fact that the MIPS system utilises the same processed polycarbonate layers that is used for the outer layers of helmets, so it really is the perfect complementary technology to add to a helmet manufacturing process.”
The obvious expertise and focus of MIPS AB was another drawcard, though it created some challenges. “Early in our relationship,” said Thompson, “when they were grappling with how to produce in China, we were able to contribute by sharing information on our processes and providing guidance on optimising quality. It’s come a long way since those early days and MIPS has grown to be a well established technology supplier to an impressive number of brands.”
All MIPS layers are manufactured in China since the majority of helmets are also made there. MIPS AB has five local staff responsible for the manufacture, quality control, and delivery of the layers to its customers. Every layer is brand-, model-, and size-specific, so MIPS AB works closely with each helmet manufacturer to arrive at the final design.
“At the start,” recalls Thompson, “they had this version of MIPS called MIPS1 that was basically very expensive to incorporate into a helmet. Then they came up with MIPS2, which is what we see today. MIPS2 can be retrofitted to an existing helmet, which is its advantage and disadvantage.
“The problem with retrofitting is that while improving safety, you can compromise other important characteristics, such as fit and ventilation. At Scott, we are on our sixth generation of MIPS helmets, and each time we apply more of our learning to ensure even better MIPS integration.
“We have regular meetings with the team at MIPS and have a close working relationship. They push us and we push them. We now design our helmets around MIPS from the start. This does not necessarily make it function better safety-wise, but it is critical to achieving the fit and ventilation we want.”
Future goals and plans
“The MIPS journey, it has been really tough,” says Halldin, “but in the end we have a success story. The last two years have been really good and we’ve gotten a lot of helmets out into the marketplace, and that’s just fantastic.”
Hans von Holst is equally pleased with the progress made. “I think we were one of the forerunners with MIPS to focus on primary prevention of a clinical problem. Neurosurgeons are now going out to schools in Sweden to show the young pupils about how to avoid traumatic brain injuries. It’s not so glamorous but it’s very important.”
Both men can see that there is more work to do though. “Everything can be improved but I’m not going to tell you how,” was Halldin’s wry answer. After publishing a new helmet safety testing protocol, Halldin is taking a leading role in overhauling current standards that ignore the importance of oblique impacts.
Hans von Holst was much more forthcoming on the topic. “We don’t yet have a zero-impact helmet,” he said. “We have improved the helmet by up to 50% but we have another 35% left before we can eliminate the kinetic energy coming into the brain tissue. This will be next step for the next 10-20 years.”
As a man that is about to celebrate with 70th birthday, some might expect von Holst to leave the work to others, but he remains just as committed to the work as he was 20 years ago.
“I’m just about to quit neurosurgery but I will not have time to retire and I’m not interested in that,” said von Holst. “I will keep working on developing further solutions for preventing head injury. I will focus more and more on the next generation of the MIPS system.
“I think the next generation will be individualised. There’s no sense in asking for a small, medium or large helmet to fit your head. Tomorrow we will go into a store and ask for my individualised and personal helmet, and that’s where MIPS will have a profound impact.”