Montrealers compete to build the NFL's new, safer football helmet

A team of Montreal researchers is trying to win a competition to see who can build a new NFL helmet to help reduce concussions.

The group from Quebec could win $1M prize if their design is picked

Researcher Franck Le Naveaux, who is also a former boxer, is part of a team trying to develop a new helmet for the NFL (CBC)

As a former boxer, Franck Le Naveaux learned firsthand how devastating a concussion can be to an athlete.

He recalls seeing stars after taking the blows to head in the ring and the headaches that followed.

"Yeah, not fun," Le Naveaux said, "but I think at the time I didn't know really what [a concussion] was and I wasn't aware of the risks."

Today Le Naveaux's boxing career is over, and he is no longer throwing punches.

Instead, he is focused on a new fight: making contact sports safer for the next generation of athletes.

As the project co-ordinator for a Montreal consortium called Kollide, he's endeavouring to build a football helmet that will reduce the risk of head trauma for players.

The group, which is made up of four small companies with different specializations, entered the NFL's Helmet Challenge — an initiative by the league to promote innovation for safer equipment — and recently won a grant worth $319,000 to develop its design.

"We were very happy and very proud the NFL supported our concept and our team," Le Naveaux said.

Montreal engineering school comes on board

To help develop and test their new helmet, Le Naveaux and Kollide reached out to Prof. Éric Wagnac at Montreal's École de technologie supérieure (ETS).

Wagnac says he and his research team were already in the process of testing new designs for hockey and bicycle helmets, so they jumped at the chance to work on this project.

"We just said — wow — what a great opportunity having these four companies working with us on developing what maybe could be a future [NFL] helmet," Wagnac said.

ETS Prof. Éric Wagnac is also working on developing the new and improved helmet. He has also built a machine that can crash-test the new helmets when they're ready. (CBC)

Wagnac has assembled a team of researchers to work with Kollide on engineering aspects of the helmet. He has also built a machine that can crash-test the new helmets when they're ready.

"For a researcher, it's very exciting. What you want is for your work not to be put on a table and put aside," Wagnac said. "This research is making a [difference] and also helps people like the players."

$1M prize for winning design

In addition to Kollide, three other U.S.- based design groups won grants to develop a new helmet for the NFL's challenge.

The league will put all the finalists to the test in a contact simulation, and the team whose helmet performs the best will win a $1-million prize.

Beyond the cash prize, Le Naveaux says the prestige of being the creator of the next generation of football helmets would go a long way to boost Quebec's reputation as a hub for innovation.

"This will showcase what we can do in football, but also in other sports for other protective equipment," Le Naveaux said.

Even if Kollide doesn't win the top prize, Wagnac is certain the research developed while creating the helmet will be valuable down the road.

"I'm pretty confident that we're going to [create] a great helmet. But even if we don't win the million, all the technology we provided inside the helmet, I'm pretty much sure it's going to be applied at some point," Wagnac said.

Kollide has until July 2021 to deliver its helmet to the NFL.


Douglas Gelevan is a national award-winning journalist who has been a member of the CBC team since 2010. In addition to his role as host of CBC Montreal Weekend News, Doug also covers community sports and sports news.