To create a prototype, they obtained several pelts from hedgehogs that had died naturally and observed two hedgehogs living at the time at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
Hedgehog quills are mostly hollow and although they are light, they are very strong.
Using a 3D printer, the team created impact protection modules—squares of overlapping and pitched flexible polymer "quills," modeled after the pattern of quills on hedgehogs. After numerous experiments to create the best pattern and flexibility, including dropping modules from high points, more than a dozen were inserted into a helmet liner, also created by a 3D printer.
Last October, the liner was inserted in a clear helmet and tested at ICS Laboratories in Brunswick. The lab is one of five in the country approved for third-party validation testing by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, which certifies athletic equipment, including helmets.
The Hedgemon helmet was put on a head form full of oil, which was subjected to linear and angular impacts at several velocities, Kennedy said. Their helmet was tested against other brand-name helmets.
"We found, in some areas, we outperformed other helmets, and in others we were not quite there yet," she said. "For the first full-scale, 3D-printed liner, we were feeling pretty good."
The team is making improvements to the modules and the liner, including adding more modules and making the liner more durable. They plan to use injection-molded parts for the modules and liner for the test this fall.
Just getting started
Hedgemon received $50,000 in startup funding from the University of Akron Research Foundation's Spark Fund. After completion of the Spark Fund project, which included the helmet testing, the foundation licensed the technology to Hedgemon, which is now in a coworking space at StartMart in Tower City Center in Cleveland.
As the company evolves, its team members hold other jobs. Kennedy is director of external relations for UA's Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center. Hsiung is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego; and Swift is a design engineer at Moog Flo-Tork, a space and defense group firm in Orrville. Paige is at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
To date, Hedgemon has raised $363,000 in nondilutive capital and equity investments, Kennedy said. Sources include the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, FlashStarts, Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise, JumpStart, Lemelson Foundation, National Science Foundation and Ohio Third Frontier.
While the intellectual property belongs to the university, Hedgemon was granted the exclusive license and is able to commercialize the projects. The company plans to either supply or license its helmet liner technology to a football helmet manufacturer.
"We see ourselves as an (research and development) company," Kennedy said.
The company received patent claims for future personal and material impact protection products, using the hedgehog-inspired modules. They include body armor, athletic shoe midsoles, child car seats, fall-protection flooring, transport cases, electronics housing and automotive paneling. The company is seeking foreign-territory approval.
"The total market for Hedgemon's impact protection technology exceeds $10 billion when other potential applications are factored," the company's proposal stated.