Pittsburgh startup's high-tech cap scores big in NFL competition
After seeing his 6-year-old boy take a nasty spill on concrete while riding a four-wheeler, Federico Olivares was taken aback. Even though his son was wearing a helmet and wasn't seriously injured, Olivares said he was surprised how little protection the helmet appeared to offer.
“I knew there had to be a better way to protect the head,” said Olivares, founder of Bloomfield-based 2nd Skull. A product marketer for Kellogg's Co. at the time, he asked himself: If there were one product that could add protection to any sport helmet, what would it look like?
The product he came up with, a spandex cap with impact-absorbing technology that fits under a helmet, got the attention of the NFL, which invited the company to present its idea at the second pre-Super Bowl 1st and Future competition.
The NFL has faced intense criticism for its handling of concussions and other head injuries among its players. According to its own data, there were 244 NFL players diagnosed with concussions in 2016. While that's slightly lower than the 275 concussions the league saw in 2015, it's well above the 206 from 2014.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said during the 1st and Future event that technology is a friend to football and will be key in helping the league solve the head injury crisis.
“There are helmet devices that are coming out and changing the helmet structure and the materials used in that,” Goodell said. “So there are actual real developments that are coming out of technology and innovation.”
The 2nd Skull caps and headbands won't prevent concussions, Olivares is quick to point out. They're comparable to other protective equipment that reduces the impacts of contact sports, such as mouthpieces or elbow pads.
Olivares, whose resume includes stints at GlaxoSmithKline and PPG Industries, holds an MBA in marketing from the Joseph M. Katz School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. His closest adviser at 2nd Skull is the company's vice president, former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko.
Palko said his mother introduced him to Olivares when the two worked at GSK together. Now that he's a parent himself, Palko said he has a new appreciation for the role sports can play in a kid's life and how important safety is for young athletes.
“Football has been a part of my life since I was in my mom's belly,” he said, nodding to his father, Bob Palko, longtime West Allegheny football coach. “It shaped me, molded me into the man I am today. So I don't want to see parents who don't want their kids to play football or any sport because they're afraid their kids will be injured.”
He said 2nd Skull's caps aren't the only answer to football and other sports' injury problems.
“Helmets are getting safer, and the game is taking steps to reduce head injuries and improve safety,” Palko said. “We'll never be able to totally remove injuries from sports, but we can say to parents, ‘We'll make this helmet safer.'”
As for trying to convince athletes to wear the caps and headbands, Palko doesn't see it as a terribly difficult sell. The products don't add bulk to the equipment players already wear, for one thing. “If you had told me when I was playing that this (skullcap) would make me safer, I would have worn it in a heartbeat,” he said.
In designing the product, Olivares took his inspiration from athletes; the 2nd Skull cap is based on the caps he saw players wearing under their helmets. The company also designed a headband for athletes such as soccer players who don't wear helmets.
2nd Skull's caps and headbands, which come in adult and youth sizes, are on store shelves at Dick's Sporting Goods and are worn by professional athletes like soccer star Meghan Klingenberg — a Pine-Richland High School graduate — and the Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli. Olivares said he has retailers calling him asking to carry the products.While the six-year-old company continues to raise money to develop its next generation of products, it's not planning to branch out into other body parts. “We really want to stay focused on head protection,” Olivares said.
2nd Skull was edged out in the “Materials to Protect the Athlete” category at the 1st and Future competition by Leesburg, Va.-based Windpact, which makes padding designed to fit in helmets. But Olivares said the experience and exposure for the small company made the trip worth it.
“We're still a very small, young company,” he said. “I think the relationships we've built helped us learn what we need to do to keep our progress heading in the right direction.”
Kim Lyons is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.