IN 2008, Unequal Technologies developed an eighth-inch-thick Kevlar-lined membrane for use in thin, lightweight bulletproof vests. But two years later, when the company's founder and CEO, Rob Vito, heard about the death of 16-year-old Thomas Adams, a high-schooler from Garfield, N.J., who collapsed after being struck in the chest with a pitch at baseball practice, he realized there could be a sports application as well.
These days about 150 NFL and MLB players use Unequal as supplemental padding. It has also taken off in the action sports industry, especially after Czech snowboarder Sarka Pancochova—who lined her helmet with Unequal—walked away from a head-cracking crash in the women's slopestyle final in Sochi. She sent Vito the helmet as a thank you.
Doctors are divided on whether impact-reducers can truly protect athletes from concussions, which are caused mainly by movement of the brain within the skull, and even Vito admits Unequal is not a "cure- all." But he says that his technology is unique because it dissipates force, turning a direct hit into a glancing blow.
The Braves' Evan Gattis, who has been wearing Unequal in his goalie-mask-style catcher's helmet, agrees. For him, the concern is less the occasional hard collision and more the frequent (two or three times a game) dings he takes from foul balls.
"When you get your bell rung," he says, "it actually kind of vibrates. But with this stuff, it doesn't ring."
A padded elastomer called Accelleron‚Ñ¢ provides cushioning and helps absorb shock.
A layer of Kevlar¬Æ, which can be woven into a sheet that's stronger than steel, disperses impact laterally.
A patented polymer called ImpacShield‚Ñ¢ helps disrupt and diffuse force, like a blast shield.
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An Unequal composite liner is visible through the helmet of the Braves' Evan Gattis.
When an object hits Unequal, some of the energy passes through the membrane, but the rest is dispersed sideways and absorbed by the combination of materials.
RUSSELL LANSFORD/ICON SMI (GATTIS)
COURTESY UNEQUAL (GRAPHICS)