Can hedgehogs help protect heads? Local startup designs helmets inspired by hedgehog quills

by Skylar Cole

The concussion crisis is not a new epidemic. From athletes, both big and small, to soldiers, concussions can dramatically change the way lives look. 

A 2017 study by scientists at Boston University School of Medicine found that, in brains of deceased football players that had been donated for research, 99% of NFL players and 91% of college players showed evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused by repeated head injuries. CTE was also present in the brains of 21% of high school football players.

More than $100 million has been invested by the NFL alone to discover better helmet options to decrease the occurrences and severity of concussions and CTE. 

There have been hundreds of designs tested to find what helmet will decrease the most traumatic brain injuries. 

What would you say if the solution to better helmets was a hedgehog?

In the wild, hedgehogs are active climbers. They will climb trees to hunt for food and insects. But when they are approached by an avian predator, or simply when they fall, they bunch up into balls. 

Covered in more than 7,000 spines, hedgehogs use this as a way to soften the blow. Their quills are “actually quite flexible,” says Emily Kennedy, CEO of Hegemon. “It takes nearly 200 times the force of bending [the quills] to actually break [the quills].” 

Hegemon is an Akron startup using the hedgehog as an influence to create more effective impact protection.

The company was created as the result of a design challenge in a class that was a part of The University of Akron’s biomimicry program.

Many of these design challenges are sponsored, but the one that inspired Hegemon was not, so Kennedy’s group chose a widely covered topic. When it came to choosing inspiration for the design challenge, others, such as woodpeckers and big horned sheep, were looked at before settling on the hedgehog.

Hedgehog spines are hollow and flexible and, due to their placement on the hedgehog’s body, offer support and equally distribute the force of the blow to the quills around it. 

“When you pack these quills next to each other, the force is deflected, so the force is spread over a larger surface area instead of localizing the impact,” Emily says.

The hollow polyurethane quills Hegemon designs would replace the current foam liners in helmets. Where foam can deteriorate over time due to factors like heat and moisture, the quills would be able to withstand the forces of weather and football.

But it’s not all about direct impact. The glancing blows that cause the head to jerk or quickly rotate can be just as dangerous. Current helmets are designed to withstand direct blows, but rotational blows can cause players to quickly turn their heads, which can cause damage to the brain.

Hegemon’s technology, while currently being developed for football helmets, can be used for many applications, including car seats, automotive panels, electronics, running shoes, or fall protection on flooring.

Kennedy and her business partner have recently applied for a grant from the NFL and hope to market their helmet design in the next few years.

Skylar Cole is a senior at Bio-Med Science Academy.