There are two kinds of helmets: those with MIPS, and those without. You can spot a MIPS helmet pretty easily — just look for the little yellow logo near the helmet’s rim, or the strange yellow interior of the helmet’s shell. What is MIPS, and why is it so important? The story of MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System) began in 1995 when Hans Von Holst, a brilliant neuroscientist, teamed up with Peter Halldin, a relentlessly inquisitive engineer, and decided to change the world. Their goal: to drastically reduce, and eventually eliminate completely, brain injuries in all sports.

Twenty-two years after its story began, MIPS is well on the way to achieving its ultimate goal. Nearly every major bike and motorcycle helmet manufacturer offers at least one MIPS-integrated helmet; many offer several. And the science becomes clearer every day: helmets with MIPS reduce brain injuries more effectively than those without.

“The reason to choose a helmet with MIPS is to have additional support and protection during certain impacts,” says Johan Thiel, the CEO of MIPS. “[MIPS] is very cheap insurance for additional protection. And the most dangerous injury when you’re wearing a helmet is a brain injury.”

How does MIPS work, exactly? Thanks to some clever engineering, MIPS essentially mimics the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid, which is our bodies’ second line of defense against brain injury. (Our skull is the first.) When hit with oblique impact, two layers — the helmet’s foam outer shell and MIPS’ patented inner shell, connected to one another by omnidirectional elastic bands — rotate independent of each other, thereby absorbing and diffusing the energy of the impact much better than a standard helmet. (Still confused? Go here.)

MIPS isn’t a consumer product. You can’t buy an individual MIPS shell and install it in your own helmet. Rather, MIPS is an ingredient in consumer products. It can take months, sometimes years, to properly integrate MIPS into a helmet. At its headquarters in Sweden, MIPS tests product concepts in a gleaming, echoey laboratory, where helmets are repeatedly smashed with battering rams and crash test dummy heads are launched into the ground; the data extracted from these tests is then used to produce new, safer helmets. In an effort to make helmets safer across categories and brands, MIPS even publishes many of its research papers on brain injuries and oblique impacts to the skull online.

MIPS wasn’t always an ingredient maker, so to speak. “The first instinct was to make an entire helmet — to become a helmet manufacturer,” says Greg Shapleigh, strategic advisor at MIPS. “Then, the subsequent decision was made to become an ingredient supplier. That’s significant, because that’s a big part of what MIPS wants to do. MIPS wants to make every helmet better. The solution was developed in such a way that it can be retro-fitted to an existing helmet, or it can be added to a new helmet that’s being developed. But in both cases, it makes the helmet better. We’re protecting more people and we’re getting the solution out there faster than we could have if MIPS was just a helmet company.”

There are 63 brands using MIPS technology today, according to Shapleigh. Most of them focus only on cycling, snow sports, motocross and motorcycling equipment. These are the areas where MIPS has had the most success, and where it continues to expand. But MIPS’ overarching ambitions are much larger.

“We think that the helmet universe is somewhere around 70 million helmets made per year. We’re looking at all 70 million helmets as a potential for this kind of technology,” Shapleigh says.

Someday soon, you may see some form of MIPS technology in every sport. MIPS is also testing concepts for professional sectors like military, police and rescue. Perhaps most exciting — and most dire — is MIPS’ hopeful expansion into American football, a sport whose concussion problem has been widely publicized. “We have been looking into American football for many, many years, and we think we can make a difference. But when it comes to the test methods that are used today in American football helmets, and also the rating methods, there’s a lot of work to do,” Halldin says. “There is a lot of ongoing research in America right now, sponsored by the NFL, which will hopefully clear the questions.”

Twenty-two years after Halldin and Von Holst designed the first MIPS prototype, helmets are safer than ever before. And whatever MIPS’ future may be, its research into brain injuries will forever influence how we think about sports protection.

“While we can’t say exactly what the helmet of the future is going to look like,” Shapleigh says, “I’m convinced that we’re going to look back at this moment and say, ‘This is when things changed.’ This is when the industry and consumers realized what they had before wasn’t enough. There’s this convergence of new knowledge about the brain and how it’s injured, and there’s an awareness of the need to protect better.”

Michael Finn

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