Cleveland, Ohio —The quills of a hedgehog, which cushion the mammal from harm when it falls from trees, inspired researchers to create a product that could one day prevent football concussions, cushion the inner soles of running shoes and protect soldiers.
Hedgemon recently received patent approval for its hedgehog-inspired impact protection technology.
The initial focus is to create a liner for football helmets to protect players from concussions, CEO Emily Kennedy said. The company plans to seek venture funding and supply or license its technology following a test this fall at a certified lab.
"We've had some preliminary conversations with all football helmet manufacturers," Kennedy said. "We need the data to blow their socks off."
It has been more than five years since Kennedy and others in the University of Akron's graduate degree program in biomimicry began discussing how to prevent concussions, a frequent injury among football players of all ages. In recent years, there has been increasing concern that concussions cause long-term brain injuries.
Biomimicry involves copying nature to solve human problems, so Kennedy and classmates, including Bill Hsiung, began investigating which animals had qualities to absorb impacts to the head and body.
They studied woodpeckers and bighorn sheep, but realised the bird's beaks and sheep's horns absorb only linear impacts, caused by direct blows to the head that knock the brain against the inside of the skull. They aren't affected by angular impacts, caused by indirect or glancing blows that spin the brain against the inside of the skull, she said.
Research has shown angular impacts are more damaging to the brain than linear impacts, but no football helmet can absorb rotational energy, Kennedy added.
They then discovered the hedgehog.
"We were surprised by that connection to the hedgehog, but in their behaviour in the wild they fall pretty regularly," she noted.
Hedgehogs – which are small, each weighing only about 1.5 pounds – escape predators by curling into a tight ball and falling from trees. Their 7,000 quills, which are arranged in overlapping layers, act as a shock absorber, so the animals are uninjured after they hit the ground.
From nature to prototype