The coolest award I have
As a professional football player, Shawn Springs experienced the effects of concussions firsthand. That knowledge, combined with the insights gained from a component of an infant car seat, led him to build a company that uses patented padding to protect athletes, soldiers, and automobile passengers from traumatic brain injuries. Now immersed in the world of applied science and technology, Springs breaks the stereotypes of athletes and shows that innovation can come from anywhere.
Each month, our Journeys of Innovation series tells the stories of inventors or entrepreneurs whose groundbreaking innovations have made a positive difference in the world. This month, we focus on the journey of an athlete turned innovator who’s breaking stereotypes with his achievements.
As he regained consciousness, the first thing NFL cornerback Shawn Springs saw was his trainer and a cluster of fellow football players standing over him, some of them in tears. Springs had just taken a hard hit from Philadelphia Eagles fullback Josh Parry while pursuing Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. He could hear voices, but he couldn’t move or breathe.
“I remember everything before the play, but after that it was lights out,” Springs says. “It’s probably the hardest hit I’ve ever taken in my life.” He left the field on a stretcher and was hospitalized with a severe concussion.
Springs looks back somberly on that night in December 2004. He describes his injury as “a real concussion, the worst you can probably get.” He was fortunate he didn’t suffer any other head injuries as severe as that one during his long football career, but the incident stayed with him. Springs’s firsthand knowledge of concussions and the harsh physicality of the game, which he describes as “a series of small car crashes,” proved extremely useful as he transitioned in 2011 to his post-NFL job as the founder and CEO of Windpact, a technology and applied science company focused on impact protection. Experiences and mentors guided, challenged, and shaped him on each step of his journey toward this new role.
Springs was born in 1975 in Williamsburg, Virginia. His parents were just 18 years old at the time. His father, Ron Springs, was one of the top football recruits in the country, and he soon went to play for Ohio State University. It was an important opportunity for Ron. When the younger Springs was 4 years old, his mother, Teresa Thomas, who had enlisted in the Army, temporarily left him in the care of his paternal grandmother and aunts while she was stationed in Germany.
“I always got constantly loved,” Springs says fondly of those early years.
When Springs was 8, he and his mother moved to the Washington, D.C., area. His father, meanwhile, became a running back for the Dallas Cowboys. Springs visited his father in Texas during the holidays and over the summers. Even as a child, he recognized the contrast between the rough neighborhood he lived in with his mother and the football lifestyle his father enjoyed.
“That was a very unique perspective for me to see both worlds early,” he says, acknowledging the valuable lessons each of his early homes taught him.
It was his mother who first encouraged Springs to play football. She wanted to help him channel his energy but also keep him out of trouble. When he was in eighth grade, he went to live with his father, first in Cleveland, Ohio, and later in Silver Spring, Maryland. His father instilled in him the importance of an education and of hard work and discipline—not just for football but for life more broadly. Looking back, Springs says, “The biggest thing I learned from my dad was [don’t be] afraid to shoot for the stars and land on the moon … dare to dream.”
Springs excelled at football in high school and was recruited to play at Ohio State University, as his father had. It was challenging to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I didn’t want to be a football player. I wanted to be an architect,” Springs admits. “I loved seeing things being built and developed.”
He would have the chance to pursue his interest in building and developing in years to come, but while in college, his renown as a football player continued to grow. Springs was chosen by the Seattle Seahawks as the third pick overall in the 1997 NFL draft. To this day, no cornerback has ever been picked higher in the draft.
Springs wasn’t thrilled at first about going to Seattle. He didn’t know much about the city, but he soon realized it was an especially exciting place to be at that time. His new friends and neighbors worked for Starbucks and Amazon—just a small startup in the late 1990s—and Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, was the owner of the Seahawks. Springs found the innovative environment stimulating, and he admired Allen’s philanthropic work. He recalls one particularly significant conversation in which he asked Allen, “Did you know that you were going to be a billionaire?”
“Shawn, it wasn’t about becoming a billionaire,” Allen replied. “It was about doing something special and changing the world.”
“That stuck with me,” Springs says, “and I started to see the world differently at that point.”
After playing for the Seahawks (1997-2004), Springs played for Washington (2004-2009) and the New England Patriots (2009-2010). During his football career, he utilized the work ethic his father had instilled in him and further developed his ability to collaborate with teammates and commit to objectives. When asked what made him so successful, Springs replies, “When I’m covering a receiver, I don’t think about getting beat. I think about the play I’m going to make. I know I could get beat. … But one thing I do believe is I am also going to make a play. And that is unwavering confidence.” It’s a philosophy he would carry with him into his post-football career as well.
As Springs neared the end of his time in the NFL, he began to think about his future. He felt strongly he should do something that would make a difference in the world, as Allen had. He also wanted to give back to the game of football in some way, perhaps make it safer for his children and the next generation of athletes.
A pivotal moment for Springs came soon after his retirement from the NFL. While in New England, he had become friends with Ken Duffy, who worked for the Dorel Juvenile Group, a manufacturer of children’s products. Duffy had gifted Springs a Safety 1st infant car seat made with a new technology designed to better protect a child’s head from impacts. Springs was curious about the technology, and in early 2011 he asked Duffy how it worked. Duffy gave Springs one of the pads from a car seat to experiment with, and he brought it home and set up a test on his breakfast table, smashing one of his football helmets into the padding to see how it responded. The wheels started turning in Springs’s head.
“I made the link right then and there,” he says. “Football is a series of car crashes … this padding technology is used to protect my kid.” He began to wonder if the technology could be adapted for football helmets.
To explore and develop his idea, Springs asked Duffy to introduce him to key team members at Dorel, the parent company of Safety 1st. Dorel had patented the padding technology he wanted to consider for helmets. Duffy connected Springs with the president of Dorel, David Taylor, who invited Springs for a visit. While there, Springs explained to the executives his desire to use their technology in football helmets. At first, they expressed concern about doing business with a startup, but they decided to explore the possibility because they shared Springs’s commitment to increasing the safety of others. Discussions among attorneys from both parties soon revealed that the patent was limited to infant car seats, so Dorel encouraged Windpact to use the technology in new ways.
Springs started Windpact (U.S. trademark reg. no. 5,281,738) in 2011, with a mission “to be the most advanced impact protection company in the world, to make everyday lives safer.” He then began to gather the information he needed to build his business. Forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu had recently begun to publish his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (better known as CTE)—a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries—and its prevalence in the brains of deceased football players. To learn more, Springs visited the companies that made football helmets. He wanted to better understand why innovation in helmet technology had been minimal since the time his father played football.
An incident on a summer night in 2012 provided further confirmation of the value of the padding technology. While driving back to Northern Virginia after visiting his aunt and grandmother in Williamsburg, Springs collided with a car stopped in the middle of the highway. Three of his children were with him. His youngest son, Shawn II, was riding in the car seat and was unhurt. The other passengers had minor injuries. When Springs picked up his family’s personal items from the towing company, he looked closely at the car seat and realized it was intact. This reinforcement of the technology’s effectiveness fueled Springs’s desire to use it for football helmets.
With the help of his attorneys and colleagues such as Leon Marucchi, now the director of design and development at Windpact, Springs applied for his own patent (U.S. pat. no. 8,863,320), protecting his right to use the padding technology for helmets. He also registered a trademark for the technology, calling it Crash Cloud (U.S. trademark reg. no. 5,342,065).
“The Crash Cloud is a unique combination of foam and controlled air,” Springs explains. It absorbs energy as it’s compressed, but it also dissipates energy through impact vents. “If you squeeze it on low and medium impacts, it’s soft, and then as soon as you … punch it really fast, it will trap the air and stiffen up, so the air component takes on the bigger impacts.”
After receiving his patent in 2014, Springs began to grow his team. He hired a number of people to work with him at Windpact in Leesburg, Virginia, but he also established a network of scientists and engineers, including those at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab and the Ballistic Loading and Structural Testing Lab at North Carolina State University, to help with research and testing. The group soon discovered that by adjusting the type of foam and rate of controlled airflow, Crash Cloud could address many different kinds of impacts, making it a valuable technology in numerous fields. The Windpact team started to experiment with using the padding in other types of helmets, such as those for women’s lacrosse, and in safety equipment like baseball catchers’ masks. They attracted the attention of the U.S. military and currently have a contract in place to use Crash Cloud in helmets for soldiers. They are also developing interior linings for automobiles.
As Windpact’s staff and network continue to explore new and creative ways to use Crash Cloud, Springs knows that having a savvy intellectual property (IP) strategy is crucial.
“We have a whole plan around our IP strategy because that’s it today,” he says firmly. “As ingredient technology, you don’t survive without an IP strategy. Building a brand is good, but your brand is built on a foundation of good IP.”
Springs has won many awards throughout his life, but for him, “The coolest award I have is my name on a patent.” He aspires to one day be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame so he can set an example for young people, not just as an athlete but also as an innovator.
“We talk about it often in sports—the importance of being a role model, how you affect your community, doing the right thing,” Springs says. “That’s why I’m so excited to [show] that it doesn’t matter the color of your skin, your background, what you’ve done before. If you have a wonderful, beautiful idea that you can share with the rest of the world—maybe get it patented—to make the world a better place, that’s what’s important. And when you think about sports … how cool would it be to be a role model and an inventor to where kids could say, ‘You know what? I can do both.’”
Produced by the USPTO’s Office of the Chief Communications Officer. For feedback or questions, please contact OCCOfeedback@uspto.gov.
Story by Marie Ladino. Contributions from Kaarta Maron, Jay Premack, Eric Atkisson, Alex Camarota, and Lauren Emanuel. Photos at the beginning of this story and on the USPTO homepage by Jay Premack/USPTO.