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Pittsburgh company 2nd Skull wins $100,000 from NFL for its head-protection beanie

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
A 2nd Skull protective headband is shown inside the offices of 2nd Skull in Bloomfield on Nov. 6, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune Review
A 2nd Skull protective headband is shown inside the offices of 2nd Skull in Bloomfield on Nov. 6, 2017.
A 2nd Skull protective skull cap is shown inside the offices of 2nd Skull in Bloomfield on Nov. 6, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune Review
A 2nd Skull protective skull cap is shown inside the offices of 2nd Skull in Bloomfield on Nov. 6, 2017.
Chief Executive Officer of 2nd Skull, H. Vaughan Blaxter, III, speaks about the advancements in head protective gear inside his offices in Bloomfield on Nov. 6, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune Review
Chief Executive Officer of 2nd Skull, H. Vaughan Blaxter, III, speaks about the advancements in head protective gear inside his offices in Bloomfield on Nov. 6, 2017.

A Pittsburgh company and its protective beanie designed soften blows to the head have caught the attention of the NFL.

2nd Skull won $100,000 from the NFL through the league's HeadHealth TECH Challenge.

The money will help the three-year-old company conduct more testing at the NFL's lab at Duke University and improve the product, said Vaughan Blaxter, the company's CEO. Blaxter called the NFL's interest in the company huge and hoped it would help spread the use of 2nd Skull's beanies in professional, college and youth sports.

"Every time you pick up the newspaper, you read about head injuries in sports," Blaxter said.

The company won the NFL's challenge in September. It was among three winners out of 85 proposals. Previously, the NFL invited 2nd Skull to present at its 1st and Future competition at the 2017 Super Bowl.

Federico Olivares, a graduate of Pitt's Katz Graduate School of Business, founded the company after he watched his young son fall off his bike. His son's helmet cracked, Blaxter said. Olivares knew he had to do something to better protect children's heads.

2nd Skull's beanie is meant to be worn under helmets or hats. The company makes a headband for non-helmet sports like soccer. The beanie sells for $60, the headband for $50. They are available at Dick's Sporting Goods, Dunhams Sports and similar stores and on Amazon.

2nd Skull's beanie is slim. At first glance, it doesn't look like it would do much to protect your head. It's only a few millimeters thick. It's soft, flexible and breathable. Inside the cap are panels of Poron XRD, a foam padding used in some helmets and protective gear. Bauer uses Poron XRD in its hockey helmets.

When the molecules making up Poron XRD detect an impact, say from a baseball or linebacker, they momentarily freeze, absorbing and dissipating the energy of the collision and forming a protective shield.

For skeptics, Blaxter had a demonstration ready to go. At a table inside the company's Bloomfield office, Blaxter held a stainless steel ball the size of a gum ball about a foot about a piece of foam padding commonly found in helmets. He dropped the ball; it hit the padding and bounced up several inches. Blaxter then dropped the same ball from the same height onto a piece of Poron XRD.

The ball hit with a thud and stopped dead.

Blaxter said a 2nd Skull beanie can reduce the force of a direct hit by 4 to 20 percent, depending on where the hit occurs. It can reduce the force of glancing blows by 9 to 13 percent. The company posts testing results on its website .

Blaxter is careful to point out that wearing a 2nd Skull beanie won't prevent concussions or other serious head or neck injuries. No helmet or protective gear can, he said. Warnings to the same point adorn the box and inside of the beanie.

Blaxter likens the beanies to seat belts, which don't completely prevent deaths in car crashes but lessen their likelihood.

Blaxter's grandson wears one under his baseball hat. His son, who played football at Shady Side Academy and Kenyon College, wore one under his helmet.

"We wanted to give him the best protection possible," Blaxter said of his son, who played linebacker and tackle.

Blaxter, knocking firmly on the wooden table before him, said his son made it through his football career without a head injury.

Kevin Lynch, a vice president at 2nd Skull, calls the beanies a software upgrade for helmets. He said the product could increase the safety of questionable helmets handed out by schools or owned by athletes without the money to buy the latest and greatest technology.

"For a small price, we make everyone safer," Lynch said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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