Specialized may have an alternative to MIPS on the way

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For the past year, Specialized has been the first and only company to use MIPS’ helmet pad-based slip layer technology. Dubbed MIPS SL, the pads offer the same concussion-preventing slip-plane concept as the more traditional MIPS liner options, but do so in a way that’s lighter, more breathable and arguably more comfortable.

Specialized has implemented MIPS SL into its S-Works Evade II, S-Works Prevail II, S-Works TT and Ambush models, however, in early September 2019, Specialized’s exclusive rights to the technology came to an end. In what is likely just coincidental timing, Specialized recently submitted a patent application for its own helmet pad-based slip layer design.

Will we soon see Specialized come to market with its own MIPS alternative? Let’s dive in.

What it is

When it comes to reducing rotational motion in angled impacts, MIPS is the king. Founded off the back of academic studies, the Swedish company has a surprisingly long history in developing its myriad of patented designs and concepts. And in recent years, the now publicly-listed company has been proactive at acquiring competing or alternative technologies, such as Glidewear and Fluid, in an effort to strategically strengthen its patent protections. MIPS is also (rightfully) protective of that technology, as POC recently found out.

Specialized’s new concept obviously has a great deal in common with MIPS SL. Both are pad-based slip-layers and both intend to reduce the risk of concussion and similar brain trauma. And while I’m certainly no patent attorney (I did try reaching out to a couple for comment — no response), it seems that Specialized’s clever triple-layer slip-plane approach is different enough for the American bike company to go to the effort of a patent application.

Specialized’s patent application shows a design that differs from existing options. In this image taken from Specialized’s patent application, #22 is the user’s head, and #14 is the helmet shell.

Enclosed within a single helmet pad, that design features three layers of sliding material, with the sandwiched middle layer doubling as the connection point to the helmet shell. The middle layer will offer a hook-and-loop attachment point that protrudes through an opening in the third layer. In the event of a crash, the outer layers will be able to move independently of that fixed middle layer. It’s a simple idea and, like MIPS SL, could allow for Specialized to retain all of its desired performance features with the easy addition of rotational safety.

Stipulating the use of a hook-and-loop fastener, the patent application also outlines a few interesting functions for the new technology. “[The outlined pad] is a single-unit assembly that can be installed and removed from the helmet for any reason, such as to wash or replace the pad. [This pad] could also be designed to replace standard pad assemblies in existing helmets.“

Of course, that latter note is pretty exciting, but given that helmet pads are almost always helmet-model- and sometimes even size-specific, I wouldn’t be holding my breath for Specialized to offer pad upgrades for older models or competing brands. Certainly, if this technology is put to use, we’ll see it on new helmets first.

Hush hush

“No comment.”

That’s all I heard from Specialized when I enquired asked about the new safety-based patent application. That, of course, could mean a few things. It does make sense that Specialized would want its own unique offering in this space, given how quickly safety features are becoming a critical purchase criterion in the helmet market.

And Specialized isn’t alone in that thinking. Despite sharing a Swedish heritage with MIPS, POC decided to take its own path in 2017 with its SPIN Technology. SPIN is a silicon-gel-based shearing pad concept, and as already mentioned, briefly landed POC in a litigious battle with MIPS. The recently announced outcome of that battle is that POC will phase out its SPIN technology and once again collaborate with MIPS on new safety technologies.

Bontrager equips the Specter WaveCel (and other models) with a full-coverage WaveCel liner. There’s a ring of conventional EPS foam around the base, though, and it also covers the top of the helmet as well.

More recently we saw Trek/Bontrager try to change the cycling world (their words) with their exclusive use of WaveCel technology combined with more traditional EPS foam. And at Eurobike, Korean helmet giant HJC hinted that they’re working on their own concussion-prevention technology.

From the outside, it’s hard to know exactly what the motivation is for these major brands to part ways from MIPS. Is it that they think there’s room to further improve on safety? Is it that the MIPS branding poses a danger to helmet-makers who are trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors? Or could it simply be that MIPS is charging a healthy licensing fee that’s digging into profitability?

MIPS helmet liner
MIPS first showed off its pad-based slip-layer technology at Eurobike couple of years ago. It’s a concept that offers all the benefit of MIPS, without any downside (price excluded).

For Specialized, perhaps it’s all of these factors, or maybe something else again. It’s clear the pad-based slip-layer concept is in line with what consumers want – a safe helmet that doesn’t impede on performance or comfort. And if Specialized’s patent application results in a real-life product, then I’d bet it would allow for more freedom and speed in bringing new helmets to market (MIPS is involved in the design process for wherever its technology is used).

I reached out to MIPS for comment on Specialized’s patent application, and while they provided a similar response to Specialized, they subtly indicated that it is only an application at this moment. Will MIPS dispute Specialized’s design claim? And if MIPS has a valid dispute, will the two companies come to an agreement like MIPS and POC did to allow the unique interpretation to still be sold?

Whatever happens, this movement towards safer helmets can only be a good thing for consumers.

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