Members of SMAB lab at CU Denver
Members of the SMAB lab at CU Denver.

CU Denver-led startup wins NFL contest for helmet safety

Professor's firm and SMAB lab contribute to top prize for advancing protective equipment

February 6, 2018

Strategic PrioritiesThe Philadelphia Eagles weren’t the only big winners at this year’s Super Bowl. CU Denver’s own Chris Yakacki, PhD, an associate professor of mechanical engineering – and by extension his research lab team – won an entrepreneurial award from the NFL for a major advancement in protective equipment.

Professor Chris Yakacki and football helmet
Associate Professor Chris Yakacki inspects a football helmet in the SMAB lab at CU Denver.

Yakacki represented his startup company, Impressio, Inc., as a finalist in the NFL’s ‘1st and Future’ competition on Saturday. Impressio, which uses a lab-developed liquid-crystal foam technology for a better football helmet, won the “Advancements in Protective Technology” category along with a $50,000 check from the NFL.

“The whole week was kind of nuts,” Yakacki said by phone Monday from the lobby of a Minneapolis hotel. “The competition was incredible, and the Super Bowl lived up to the hype.”

A ‘Super’ experience

Yakacki went through a few rounds of “Shark Tank”-like practices – in front of venture capitalists and health care representatives – to prepare for Saturday’s final event. “Each time there were new people in the room giving us their take. It’s stressful; you get a lot of criticism,” said Yakacki, who is CTO and president of Impressio, which launched last summer. “But the aim is to make you better.”

Yakacki, who received his doctorate in mechanical engineering from CU Boulder in 2007, has long had an interest in biomechanical devices that improve health. During his graduate studies, he co-founded MedShape Inc., a university-based startup focused on developing novel shape-memory devices. In 2012 he joined the faculty of the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) at CU Denver, enjoying the freedom academia affords in asking “fundamentally challenging questions” and taking risks in research. Working out of the Mechanical Engineering Department’s Smart Materials and Biomechanics (SMAB) lab, Yakacki has periodically filed invention disclosures with CU Innovations.

“My plan has always been to develop technology at the university,” he said. “You can swing for the fences on new materials and inventions. I feel like we found a new material – it’s advanced and can be made into a foam. It’s better at absorbing a lot of energy.”

1st & Future check presentation
Associate Professor Chris Yakacki, far right, receives a $50,000 check for winning the technology category in the NFL’s ‘1st and Future’ competition. Pictured from far left are Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks quarterback; Carl Frick, Yakacki’s co-founder of Impressio; NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell; Chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports Mark Lazarus; President and CEO of the Mayo Clinic John Noseworthy; and Yakacki.

It’s the unique foam’s quality of absorbing forces of impact that got the attention of the NFL. The league is aggressively exploring and encouraging advancements in protective gear for its athletes, who, as research has shown, suffer higher risks of concussions and long-term brain injury.

Seeking breakthroughs in technology

Yakacki received the prestigious NSF CAREER award to investigate liquid-crystal elastomers for biomedical applications. “My goal is to find new materials that can be used in biomedical devices – so a football helmet definitely qualifies,” he said.

He is quick to credit colleagues in his department, including Dana Carpenter, PhD, assistant professor; Kai Yu, PhD, assistant professor; and Peter Jenkins, PhD, associate dean of research and professor. Jenkins is responsible for launching the department’s sports engineering track.

The department’s lab and interdisciplinary approach is part and parcel of the type of hands-on research and experiential learning that differentiates CU Denver’s undergraduate and graduate engineering curriculum. “It’s a pretty inclusive process,” Yakacki said, “and we tailor our curriculum to give our students a sense of why engineering and engineering research is meaningful and impactful.”

CU Denver students do real engineering research to solve real-world problems. The students are exposed to industry experts, and internships put them in working environments at engineering firms across the city and state. “I don’t think there’s a student you ask who’d say they’re going to college only for the fun of it,” Yakacki said. “At the end, they want a job, so we concentrate on training them for the workplace. That’s not to discount the importance of the educational process, but you want them to be hired and contribute to an employer.”

Ross Volpe, a second-year mechanical engineering PhD student and SMAB lab researcher, has worked directly with local medical device companies. He is the student who, two years ago, suggested putting lab-developed material in football helmets.

SMAB lab at CU Denver
Doctoral student Ross Volpe, left, who originally had the idea to put the liquid-crystal foam material inside helmets, works in the SMAB lab with doctoral student Nick Traugutt at CU Denver.

“One of the biggest advantages of being at CU Denver is developing industry  relationships, especially for someone like me who is going to be looking for a new job in a few years,” Volpe said. “It’s also amazing to get firsthand user feedback from the doctors and surgeons at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, from private companies and from Division I teams at CU Boulder as they use the materials we develop. We instantly get feedback and use it to continue improving the chemistry of our materials.”

Students get real-world experience

In the SMAB lab, both undergraduate and graduate students are involved in all aspects of research, as well as the patent process. Yakacki said students often get to see how SMAB-created biomedical devices are applied in the real world. One example is a master’s student, Rich Wojcik, who watched a brain surgery using one such CU Denver-developed device.

Meanwhile, Impressio will continue working to help make football a safer sport. Yakacki recently began a sabbatical from his teaching duties at CU Denver but will continue to be hard at work in the lab and his entrepreneurial efforts.

With his knack for business, Yakacki carries a special fondness for the “applied” aspect of Engineering and Applied Science. “Sometimes when you swing for the fences you hit a home run,” he said. “We want to take the research we’ve done from CU and translate it to the marketplace.”

Editor’s note: Meme Moore, media relations manager for CU Denver, and Matt Kaskavitch, digital engagement strategist, contributed to this report.