Michael Bottlang surveyed the vast Wilsonville warehouse last week, hands on his hips, barely able to suppress his glee.
This nondescript 46,000-square-foot facility, deep in a Clackamas County industrial park, is WaveCel’s new home.
A handful of employees wheel around 11-by-20-inch stacks of sheets of what look like plastic honeycombs. Others stand at tables amid the largely empty warehouse space snipping the material into helmet-shaped ovals. Construction crews are at work, too, remodeling the building. Outside, a white rectangular cardboard sign staked low to the ground is the only indication one of the buzziest brands in the bike world can be found inside.
Just six months after Trek debuted its Bontrager WaveCel helmet and proclaimed it a generational leap forward in helmet safety not seen in decades, the Portland-area inventors behind that product have already outgrown one home and are quickly settling into another.
“The growth is visible,” Bottlang said on a recent tour, “But we’re not quite there yet.”
The company’s first location was in a different Portland-area industrial park – in Milwaukie, a few doors down from two of the region’s most-iconic companies, Dave’s Killer Bread and Bob’s Red Mill.
The new place is at least 10 times larger. In less than a year of manufacturing, they estimate producing more than 500,000 shells. Next year, they expect to produce 1.5 million.
“Five years ago, I wouldn’t be able to sell this to anybody,” Dr. Steven Madey, co-owner of WaveCel, said of their helmet. “Because there was no market pressures on them to do anything different. Now there’s huge market pressure on helmet companies.”
Their product landed at the perfect time, when concussions and head trauma are part of the zeitgeist, a byproduct of years of football-related tragedies riddling national headlines, medical advances highlighting potential warning signs about head injuries, and Hollywood films and investigative documentaries on the issue hitting the big and small screen.
“There’s been so much press out there about concussions,” said Kelly Aicher, co-owner of Bike Gallery, the city’s venerable bike chain. “People are hyper aware of that.”
Aicher has known Madey for at least 15 years and knew about the helmet project forever, so he stocked up accordingly once it hit the market in March. Even then, demand outpaced supply. “We brought in just tons of these helmets,” he said, “but based on their initial inventory quantities, they definitely were not prepared for [this level of] success.”
Trek claimed the Bontrager WaveCel helmet is up to 48 times more effective at preventing concussions when compared to standard helmets. People were prepared to open up the wallet and pay up to $300 for some models.
Online orders popped up immediately around the country. “People were coming in asking for it by name,” Aicher said.
WaveCel wasn’t born overnight. It’s the product of a more than two-decade friendship and business partnership between Bottlang, a German biomedical engineer and Madey, a hand and microvascular surgeon.
Madey said after 15 years working on the helmet idea on and off, the duo thought they had something transformational on their hands.
But they’ve had that sense a few times in their two decades tinkering at the Legacy Biomechanics Laboratory that’s been the launching spot for several of their medical inventions.
“We usually create ideas, prototype them, test them, publish papers on them and then sell them to a company,” Madey explained. They did that with a pelvic sling designed to stabilize patients’ post-fracture in the field in emergency situations. They did that with a plate designed to speed up recovery for catastrophic chest injuries and rib fractures, which they sold to a company that was since bought by Johnson & Johnson.
But when Trek said they didn’t have the infrastructure to manufacture WaveCel’s signature honeycomb design, Bottlang and Madey faced a crossroads. They zigged where they usually zag: They’d build the product on their own. They leaned on the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a Portland-based nonprofit, to help figure out how to ramp up their own production line.
Bottlang engineered and created the manufacturing system, which he’s already overhauled into a new, larger machine at the Wilsonville facility.
“Here we are,” Madey said this summer. “Making helmets.”
IOWA TO PORTLAND
Like many business stories, Madey and Bottlang met on a college campus. Madey, a tall, Long Island native and avid golfer, and Bottlang, the short, ever-smiling kid from the German town just across the border from Switzerland, were an odd pair.
The latter came to the University of Iowa to get his Ph.D. The former was in an orthopedics residency in Iowa City.
They teamed up on an orthopedic project designed to give patients with an elbow fracture more mobility. What Madey described as a “hinged eternal fixation device” was a hit. The university patented the device. Madey and Bottlang recognized they had a natural partnership.
“He has strengths, I have strengths,” Madey said, citing Bottlang’s mechanical mind and “genius” ability to make things scientifically possible and his own fixation on solving practical problems. “The two don’t cross a lot.”
When Madey moved to the Portland area to raise his family, he convinced Bottlang to move too. They started the biomedical lab at Legacy.
Madey describes their overarching philosophy: “People take things for granted that that’s the greatest it can be. They don’t question it. And those are the spots we like to question.”
A few years into their Portland partnership, they started working on brain injuries, funded by a 2002 grant from the National Institutes of Health for $351,500. That grant would be replicated the next two years.
Eventually the research, and the grant funding, turned to helmets.
HOW IT WORKS
For decades, most bicycle helmets have been pretty much cut from the same mode, with a few exceptions: A polycarbonate shell, rigid expanded polystyrene foam and a few Velcro pads on the inside for comfort.
Helmets must be certified by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission to hit the shelves, and they must provide a minimum level of protection when met with a force head-on to pass muster.
Those linear forces, federal officials say, are more likely to cause severe brain trauma or skull fractures or death.
According to estimates from the federal agency, at least 380,500 bicyclists were treated in emergency rooms from 2013 to 2017 for head injuries. Those figures don’t include riders who may have experienced a concussion but didn’t go to the emergency room.
Helmets were never designed to address concussions.
Bottlang and Madey said most brain injuries were actually caused by rotational spin not a direct blow to the head.
The brain slides back and forth inside the skull in liquid. A rotational force can injure the brain.
When tackling the helmet problem, Bottlang and Madey first started experiments with a helmet-inside-a-helmet idea, a slip layer of sorts.
Swedish scientists were working on a similar idea at the same time, a slip-layer called Multi-directional Impact Protection System, or MIPS, which debuted in 2005 in equestrian helmets and entered the bicycling and snow sports world in 2010.
Madey and Bottlang and crew tested the slip-layer helmet on their own in a unique set up designed to replicate a rotational force.
As they upped the outside force, the slip layer stopped working well in their tests.
They left the idea alone.
Madey said a couple years later, though, they came back to the helmet quandary. “It was one of those things that kept eating at us,” he said.
Bottlang had the idea that higher forces could be absorbed, even if included in a test to replicate a rotational force, if they created a material that folded upon itself no matter the angle.
The final product, a cellular material that flexes, folds on itself and deflects energy away from the head, excelled in their internal tests even with higher level of forces.
This January, Bottlang and Madey and other Legacy researchers and French scientists published a report in the peer-reviewed journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, which found WaveCel “significant reduce” the risk of brain injury compared with a standard helmet and a MIPS. The report argued WaveCel helmet users had a 98% less risk of concussion than a standard EPS foam helmet user.
In March, the product launched in New York City. The rollout was a resounding success, by any standard.
The helmets were striking — a distinctive fluorescent green wave material peeked through the vents in the helmet.
Madey said he was braced for derogatory comments or bad reviews – a surgeon, after all, he’s accustomed to the real world and bad news.
“I’m a surgeon and I know the real world.”
Instead the reviews were glowing. The press was overwhelmingly positive.
WaveCel was born.
WHAT OTHERS SAY
It didn’t take long for backlash to hit.
Trek claimed the WaveCel helmet could prevent 99 out of 100 concussions.
A few weeks after the product launch, MIPS hit back in bicycling trade publications and on its own website.
The company said it spent more than 20 years doing what WaveCel’s creators were trying to do – reduce rotational motion to the head and keep people safer.
“We at MIPS have conducted more than 22,000 tests and we know that not all helmets are equally safe, not even the ones that claim to address rotational motion,” Johan Thiel, MIPS’ CEO wrote, “While we hope from a consumer standpoint that Bontrager’s claims are accurate, we are curious to see how it lives up to the tests conducted in our lab.”
MIPS said it could not replicate WaveCel’s test results.
Madey pointed out MIPS did not provide evidence of those tests or show its numbers.
Virginia Tech, home to the nation’s preeminent helmet lab, ranks companies based on a five-star system. Barry Miller, director of outreach at the lab, said they were always scrambling to catch up with the latest in helmet technology since they first started testing bike products last year. New products are always popping up.
Miller said the top 20 helmets they’d tested were either MIPS or WaveCel. They performed 24 different tests on each helmet – different velocities, different heights, different angles.
Helmets are more than just the inner liner – be it WaveCel or the MIPS slip-layer, he said. The outside shell and other components still matter. The entire helmet factors into its performance, he said.
Miller said the lab would continue to test the products, but he said in recent months the horse race switches back and forth – from WaveCel to MIPs helmets earning top honors.
He can’t settle the debate: “It’s really difficult for anyone to really say which one is better.”
Madey said WaveCel was committed to further tests and looking at more real-world impacts, like how a helmet user would fare when crashed at 15 miles per hour, 30 miles per hour, 50 miles per hour.
Both MIPS and WaveCel agree that helmet standards should be improved.
The consumer protection commission said there were “no currently accepted bicycle helmet standards” that tested for both lineal and rotational impact. Karla Crosswhite-Chigbue, a commission spokeswoman, said the government welcomed innovations like WaveCel, and the commission would “continue to evaluate whether new approaches provide equivalent or improved levels of safety as are required in current regulatory standards.”
The company continues to get positive reviews – and increasingly direct feedback from riders who crashed and credit the WaveCel helmet with sparing their brain.
Inside the new Wilsonville warehouse, Bottlang has a display of those comments and reviews.
“I will collect them all,” he said. He recently got a call from a German journalist who covered the product launch and had a nasty crash where he hit his head and broke his shoulder. He credited his WaveCel helmet with saving him greater injury. “It’s very inspiring,” Bottlang said.
The company has an exclusive agreement for now with Trek to sell WaveCel in bike helmets.
But that doesn’t preclude them from expanding elsewhere.
Madey said the possibilities were endless – equestrian, motorcycle, skiing and snowboarding, baseball, the Army – all could benefit from improved helmet technology.
WaveCel is already speaking with a construction helmet provider, which Madey declined to mention.
They say U.S. Army officials have visited the facility to check out the helmet.
David Patterson, director of public affairs for the Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier, which oversees innovation, said representatives “often meet with various companies as a part of normal market research.”
“WaveCel is currently not on contract with PEO Soldier for any projects,” he said.
For two inventors who are unaccustomed to seeing their creations in real life, the first six months of business has offered continued head-shaking moments of realism.
A few weeks before WaveCel moved into its new facility, Bottlang took a break and drove up to a food cart pod on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.
A guy sat down next to him and plopped his helmet on the table.
He shook his head and smiled. This couldn’t be real, he thought.
It was a Bontrager WaveCel helmet.
— Andrew Theen
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