It’s an understatement to say that football is a popular sport to watch, but unfortunately, it still carries a significant risk of danger for its professional players. To understand the work behind making safety equipment more useful and more effective, we spoke with Shawn Springs, former NFL pro and CEO of Windpact.
ABERMAN: Please tell me a bit about Windpact.
SPRINGS: We like to say we’re a technology and applied science company focused on force mitigation, and it’s exciting for me as a CEO, because I get to work basically building padding solutions for helmet companies like Ryedale, and I actually wore their products. And we also today, not only are we building protective solutions and protective gear and sports, but we also, last two years, I’ve been working with Natick labs, United States Army, and working on advanced combat helmets.
I’m pretty excited about that opportunity, because we can get into my relationship. My mom was in the United States Army, and my dad was a professional football player, so I guess I’m satisfying a need for both parents. And also, we have solutions that we’re also working in the automotive space, where we’re working on impact solutions for the interior of vehicles. So, we like to say, anything that deals with the impact or force mitigation, we can solve for.
ABERMAN: I think it’s really important, and protecting the brain is the most important thing in any impact situation. So, this is great. For me, teaching entrepreneurship as I do, working with entrepreneurs, I always am reminded that entrepreneurs tend to start businesses around things they personally care about. This is a mission for you. The technology is pretty innovative, but how have you been doing with getting this new technology adopted?
SPRINGS: Well I think in the climate we are in today, when we understand that millions of people suffer from traumatic brain injury and concussions and things like that, or bodily harm in everyday life, whether you’re riding a bike around D.C., watching the monuments, or a soldier who’s actually protecting our freedom somewhere else. So, we understand the importance of safety solutions. So in sports, we find that parents are pretty much the driving factor. They are looking for the safest products, they’re going to my clients and saying, what is the best product? They’re going to Dick’s and the moms are asking, what is the best lacrosse helmet that my son can wear? And a lot of times, when we go talk to our clients, they are looking for protective solutions, or a solution that can give them a leg up or an advantage on their competition.
ABERMAN: So when you think about this technology, this would seem to crossover between, say, sports, recreational, and almost a medical device. What’s the regulatory situation like?
SPRINGS: And let me back up a little bit, so people out there can understand. We consider ourselves an ingredient technology, much like Goretex or Intel. We don’t actually make the product, we kind of make the product better. The bottom line is, I think you guys understand we just provide the solution to make the product safer. So when we talk about the standards, everything that we solve for, whether it’s an automotive space, has a certain standard that we are solving for with our clients. So, if you’re working with one of the big guys in Detroit, and they have a particular application you’re solving for, and they deal with that.
When you think about sports, whether it’s a motorcycle helmet, there’s a DOT standard. Or with the U.S. Army, you go through their process with the Army Research Lab, you have to meet the Army standards. So in the Army today, their current helmets solve for 10 feet per second. So now, they’re looking for a solution for up to 14 to 17 feet per second. That’s what we’re providing for the United States Army.
ABERMAN: And I think this is the way every startup should approach things, which is, find a technology that makes things better, and then let the big guys and the partners bear the expense. That’s awesome. One thing that struck me, and again, having watched your career and learned about Windpact, I’m often struck: athletes, to get to the level of proficiency, they devote years of their lives. And then the career, even if you’re really, really fortunate to play at a high level, it’s over. And you’re 30, mid 30s at the latest, and still have 50 years of life. Talk a bit about the transition that you went through, from being a successful athlete to entrepreneur. How did one prepare you for the other?
SPRINGS: Yeah. I have to give a lot of credit to one of my great mentors, and my father. Let’s start with my dad first. He was a professional football player, but he always told me that the NFL would just be a platform for his second career, a stepping stone for the second part of your life. And you know, a lot of people don’t know that when I was drafted to Seattle, the team was just recently purchased by a guy named Paul Allen at Microsoft. And I was inspired by Mr. Allen because at the time, he had put up 300 million dollars of his own dollars to keep the team in town, because they were moving to L.A., and we were riding around.
And one day I just asked Mr. Allen: I said, Mr. Allen, did you know you were going to become a billionaire at 21? And he said, Shawn, it wasn’t about becoming a billionaire, it was about doing something exciting. We were just trying to do something disruptive on the Internet. And that stuck with me. And so, when I had the opportunity to see this technology, I was just like, this is it. I was always fascinated with technology, because I was in Seattle at a time with Starbucks, Amazon, buddies working for Microsoft. So, I was inspired, and I knew eventually when I retired, one: start to think about that while you’re playing, make sure you network with the right people, and two: when you transition out, find something that’s your passionate about, that you love.
And that, for me, was technology. And being in an organization like the Seattle Seahawks, you kind of understand how to build a team. In order to win, you have to have these critical these people. Building a team is, you know, you might be the CEO, but you want to have the smart rockstars and people around it that you can listen to and get the best advice.
ABERMAN: Quick, before I let you go: what’s next for Windpact?
SPRINGS: We are growing in our spaces, we have products on the market in baseball, and products that are coming out in the automotive space, and we continue to grow and provide new solutions in different verticals. We’re starting to integrate machine learning to some of our data, as we get smarter through all the testing of different helmets and applications that we’re testing for. So, I get to see all the cool stuff, and that’s what I really want to continue to do, and develop this company into a real technology company.
ABERMAN: Well it’s been wonderful learning about Windpact today, Shawn. Thanks for joining us.