"We Had Numbers that Were More than 100% Improvement Over the Existing Helmet" | Bob Weber on 6Ds Early Safety Testing 2

Bob Weber, owner of 6D Helmets, discusses the need for helmet technology, the difficulties of developing prototypes, the original partnership with Geico Honda, and more.

Riding dirt bikes is dangerous and safety equipment is a large part of the sport. It’s an expensive part as well. The helmet is arguably the most important safety item you buy and there are a number of options. In the last 10-15 years the technology has finally started to improve through severe brain injury studies and people searching for better ways to prevent them. Bob Weber has played a key role in helmet technology advancement within our sport. He’s the owner and driving force behind 6D helmets and I had a chance to find out how it all began.

For the full interview, check out the YouTube video right here. If you're interested in the condensed written version, scroll down just a bit further.

 

Jamie Guida – Vital MX: Before we get into 6D I always like to get a little bit of your background for those that may not know. I know you raced a little bit. You did some off-road and raced motocross at the pro level. Tell us some of your background.

Bob Weber: I raced motocross primarily. I did most of my competitive racing in New England, made it into the expert class pretty quickly in about a year. Spent ten years racing as a pro in New England or an expert, I should say. I did not make my living at motocross, but I rode a few nationals and a couple of Supercrosses and did a bunch of hare scrambles for a couple of years. I was going to call it quits in 1985. And then I happened to luck into an overall win at the last race of the year when one of my competitors got a flat front. So, I got a second and a third for a first overall, never won a moto back there straight up, but I did get an overall and then I decided to ride the next year and broke my kneecap at the first race of that next year. I was a top ten guy back then in pretty much every championship. Somewhere between fifth and 10th usually, and very much enjoyed that part of my life. But I have Tom White to thank for bringing me to California to be the sales manager at White Brothers in 1990, and I've been in the industry since.

Vital MX: I had heard you worked for White Brothers. How did that relationship with Tom come about?

Bob: I went to the Cincinnati Trade Show one year. I took three resumes with me, and one of them I handed to Tom. I did a lot of business with White Brothers back in the day, and Tom seemed to be impressed with the way I'd meet with him and Dan at the trade show. I'd open my briefcase and I'd have my order pretty much prepared. But then he'd show me all the new stuff, and I'd buy a bunch of that, too. When I got back from the show, he said, “Listen, I'd like you to come out and interview for this job”, which was a lot of fun. I flew to California in June, and I interviewed on a Friday. He invited me to race Carlsbad on Saturday on his personal bike. So instead of looking for a place to live and what I should have been doing on Saturday, I went to Carlsbad and raced Saturday motocross and of all things it rained cats and dogs in Southern California. It was a complete mud bath and I won both motos going away. I think a bunch of guys left and went home because it was muddy. But being from New England, I rode that stuff pretty good, and I won the 250 expert class or pro class, whatever it was, and said, “Okay, I'm moving to California”.

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Vital MX: John Anderson from Dubya Wheels told me you guys worked together at White Brothers. And I have to say, a big regret is never meeting Tom.

Bob: You know, Tom was amazing. I can't tell you how much I appreciate him and what a wonderful person he was. He hired a guy from Connecticut to come out and run his sales department, you know? And that was a little weird for me in the beginning because I think some of the staff at White Brothers was like, “Who the hell is this guy from Connecticut coming to work for White Brothers”? So, I had to earn my place. But, you know, I did that well. And I spent about four years there with Tom, and then I moved on. I landed on my feet at TLD and spent about eight and a half years with Troy and then started 6D after that.

Vital MX: When you had the idea to start 6D, did you have some background in safety equipment?

Bob: Yes and no. I mean, I'm a racer. I always worked on my own bikes and got myself to the races and just did what I had to do to put my bike on the racetrack every weekend. I went to Florida a couple of times in the wintertime and raced and all of that. But then I spent eight or nine years in publishing, and I got exposed to a lot of different brands and companies. And, certainly working for White Brothers, we had our hands in a little bit of everything performance related. We had a suspension shop and a race shop, and we made pipes, and we distributed parts and stuff. And then Troy actually hired me to work on his first motorcycle helmet. I did that as a private contractor, and he asked me if I would help. He was having some difficulties in getting the project all the way completed. I said, “Okay, let me give this some thought”. So, we got together and talked about it, and I said, “Let me write a plan and we'll just see where it goes”. Through that process, he ended up extending me an offer to come and work for the company full time. And that was an interesting part of my life. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do. Quite truthfully, I was kind of tired of working for others, and I've kind of always had an entrepreneurial mindset and tried a few things before, but nothing ever really stuck the way I wanted it to. Mostly because I had too many irons in the fire at one time between life and work and trying to do something. But obviously, I learned about safety equipment working with Troy and on his product line and was instrumental in the helmets that came out there. After we parted ways, I was just like, “Well, this next phase of my life, I want it to be something for myself”. I had some thoughts and ideas about an improved helmet design. I had good knowledge that they needed to be better. I had the idea, but I didn't know what it was going to take to execute the idea and to bring it to a true part. And that's where I got in touch with an old friend of mine, Robert Reisinger, who's my business partner here at 6D, one of my partners. I shared with Robert the concept and what I thought we could do with the helmet. And his first question to me was, “Are you frickin crazy? Why would you want to go fight the Bell’s and Shoei’s, and Arai’s of the world and try to make a helmet”? And I said, “Listen, let me send you some stuff to read and we'll talk about it. Before we talk about it any further, I want you to understand the problem”. I sent him a bunch of information about concussion and brain injury and rotational acceleration being the root of brain injury. And some of my ideas on how I thought we could improve the helmet, basically design a better mousetrap. Robert spent a couple of weeks looking at that. And meanwhile, I was starting to cobble some things together in my garage. We got together, talked about it. And, you know, the biggest challenge was how are we going to make it? Because you're trying to build a suspended ball inside of a sphere. That in its own right presents tons of challenges. And then you're working with EPS which is super soft. So how are you going to support a suspension system in there? Just all kinds of challenges we came across, but we spent about six or seven months working on some prototypes. I had one prototype where I had a bicycle helmet inside of a motorcycle helmet. Like a road cycling helmet. And it was wonderful from an airflow perspective. But, you know, from an energy perspective, we never actually tested that model. Once we got six prototypes together of various different designs, we went to a lab in LA and had them tested. And that's where Dr. Terry Smith was the second professional individual outside of my group to see the helmet and the helmet design. The first was David Thom, who's become a good friend over many years of working in the business going all the way back to the beginning of the TLD days. But Terry said to me, “What the heck are you doing fooling around with motorcycles? You should have this in military and football helmets”. And I'm like, “okay, that's exciting to hear and flattering and all that. But I believe I can get it made in the motorcycle market. And motorcyclists need it also”. So that was where it all started.

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Vital MX: Helmets were basically a fiberglass shell with an EPS liner. That's kind of like the foam, right? The Styrofoam that is a typical liner of most helmets. I did some research and one of the guys actually compared it to coffee cups made out of the Styrofoam.

Bob: You're correct. It's an expanded polystyrene foam. There are different densities of it, and it can be made and manufactured in different ways to do different things. But at the end of the day, it's a pretty good material for a helmet. It's crushable, it crushes at a real linear rate. And you can define how stiff or soft you want it. And it's moldable. It's easy to shoot into a mold and fill cavities. So, you find it inside of automobile dashboards and crush zones in vehicles and things like that, or places where you need something to absorb and distribute energy. But once it's used up, once that's happened, it's life is over.

Vital MX: You mentioned rotational acceleration, which from what I read, it causes rotational movement to the brain because the brain is suspended with inside your skull, and it has movement. And you were realizing typical helmets were not protecting well against that rotational acceleration or rotational movement of the brain.

Bob: You're dead nuts, right? You know what happens in an impact with the ground or another rider or whatever, be it a football player, a motorcycle racer or a skater in hockey, anybody, any impact with the head, there's a high rate of acceleration of the skull in the head form produced by that impact. And the problem, because the brain is suspended in cerebral fluid inside of your head, it's not really directly attached, if you will, to its surroundings. So, you get this radical acceleration of the head form, but the mass of the brain lags behind in that acceleration. And it's that shearing and tearing that causes all of the problems of a concussion or a brain injury. It's that damage created by that event that we're trying to reduce. We want the helmet to have some kind of isolation or damping capability between its outer shell and its inner liner that is mated to the head form. MIPS has a great solution for this. They have a liner that goes between the head form and the inner surface of the EPS, and that liner is designed to allow the helmet to shear and slip in rotation upon an impact. MIPS really couldn't get anybody to buy their technology. I believe they had one contract in place when we started our company, and nobody wanted to go to the expense of adding a licensed liner to their helmet when the market wasn't really crying for a solution. So, those guys were way ahead of their time. They addressed the problem. They had a solution for the problem, but nobody wanted to buy it. And I think when we launched 6D, ours is kind of a further on version of that. We do the same thing with the ability to shear, but we also added a suspension component to our system that makes the helmet more compliant over a broader range of energy demands. It's working sooner than a traditional helmet design because that liner's suspended and it's absorbing and managing energy during that suspended path. I think we were the rocket fuel, if you will, for MIPS, where it was pretty easy for the industry to go, “Oh, hey, I need something for rotational acceleration. This solution is really good. It doesn't cost a whole lot. I can implement that and incorporate that into my helmet without a lot of expense or reengineering”. And those guys were off and running at the same time. I think the positive for the marketplace out of all of this is helmets have gotten a lot better in the last ten years. We'll have our 10th anniversary of sales this coming February and we're looking forward to having some fun with that. But, you know, the company's been around for 12 years. It took us two years to get that first helmet to market and start selling. I can't believe it's been ten years.

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Vital MX: You talked about trying to make prototypes and taking them to testing. That can't be an easy process. I'm assuming it's very expensive. Just the prototypes, pretty expensive. The testing is probably expensive. Finding the time, finding the proper ways to test a new system of helmets. That whole process had to be stressful and just wild.


Bob: I look back at that time, at my life and it was an interesting time. I was unemployed with an idea is basically what it came down to. And my wife was taking care of our kids that were in grade school at the time and working part time as a substitute teacher. And I said, “listen, I want to do this. I think I can do this, and I need you to go get a job that can help us pay our bills and give me one year. If I don't get it done, then we'll go get a job. But I believe we can make something better”. She agreed and there were some rough nights in there, you know, when we were wondering if we did the right thing. One of my daughters was getting ready to go off to college and the other was a couple of years behind. We put our head down and started working on the helmet design. And that was tough. I had to buy a bunch of helmets. I had a few and I was trying to make some spare parts out of helmets and make a testable prototype out of helmets. I went and showed my concept to David Thom early, which I think was good. In fact, I know it was good because he encouraged me saying, “Okay, it's kind of clever where you're going here, but you're going to have some real challenges, you know”? And I remember the whole thing fell apart on his desk when I showed it to him. I was almost embarrassed about it, you know. But Dave encouraged me, and he connected me to Terry. And when I went in to meet Terry, I had six helmets in my hand that I had. And they were all different. And we had built them in my garage, and I got pretty proficient at carving EPS with a rat tail file for the outside surfaces. And I was using wire wheels on a Dremel on the inside to shape these helmets, these shells into what I needed them to be. And then I was stuffing them in other helmets, in an existing helmet shell and taking it in and going to test it. I spent a lot of my own money and I guarantee I didn't spend a dime on anything between my food and my mortgage for that year. But I think it was July or June, we went in and did some testing with Terry and the data was exceptional. I mean, significant improvements over the control model, which I had to have a brand-new control helmet of the same model to test so that the shell was isolated from the testing and that we were just testing the liner systems. We had numbers that were more than 100% improvement over the existing helmet, and our worst numbers were about a 25% improvement if we were looking at HIC or peak linear acceleration, rotational acceleration, the numbers were exceptional. And with that data, I was able to put together the rest of a business plan. I'd worked out some budgets and some things. Having the physical data from the testing allowed me to put the rest of the story together and then go try to raise money. And I'd never done that before. It was completely foreign to me. I told my wife, “Give me one year”. I was in the 11th month before we started to find some funding. I've said before, we raised $1,000,000 to start a company. When you look at VICIS that raised $93 Million to make a football helmet, and I look at the million dollars, how hard it was to raise the first million dollars we put into our company. I was pretty happy. It allowed us to at least get started. But we had to sell helmets the first year, and we did. And we built the company from that investment and on to what it is today. And it continues to grow. I'm pretty happy with the path it took. We did it better than what we could have done it and we certainly could have done it better than we did it, too, you know? But you make mistakes, and you learn, and you grow through that whole process. I wouldn't be here with 6D without a very small group of very passionate and important people in my life that helped us get started. And, you know, raising $1,000,000 is not easy.

Vital MX: Like you said, you could have maybe done it worse, right? You could have probably slacked on some things. But the fact that the helmet has tested so well, I'll mention Jason Thomas from Fly Racing. When they were working on the Formula, he mentioned how well the 6D performed. To have a competitor talk about how good your product is, that said a lot to me before I ever even tried one of your helmets.

Bob: I'm super proud of what we've accomplished. I think back to the trips that Robert and I made over to the factory in Asia, and we spent a lot of time in the first two years over at the factory. In fact, Robert spent a month and five weeks, I think, in one stint over there without coming home. And that was a hell of a commitment. We laugh about it today. We got some pretty funny pictures of us. They gave us a room up on the fifth floor of their factory where we didn't have to worry about any of the other brands that might have been visiting seeing what we were working on. We took a bunch of our tools because the factory really doesn't have R&D equipment. You know, they don't have fabrication tools. They just have production. They make helmets. There's not a tool shop in the back or a workshop in the back where you can go, “Hey, I want to trim on this visor” or whatever. They had this big mill that was on the floor that we were trying to use. We're like, “No, we've got to get this on a bench. We're not kneeling down on this thing all day. We just can't work that way”, you know? But we got through it. And that first year was all out of my pocket. And I guess the foresight to get a great engineer involved in the project and to get Robert involved with me in the beginning, it allowed us to get the project done right and it allowed us to build a foundation and a technology that really works well and does what it's designed to do. And then we've worked on improving that technology over that period of time since we started. We've also worked hard to protect that technology. So that suspended liner, we've done a really good job of protecting the IP that goes along with that. I think that's paid dividends for us because we've been able to keep our system ours and exclusive to what we're doing.

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Vital Mx: Once you have a product that you're happy with, you've got to get it on riders. You talked about having to have sales the first year. In 2013 you get in with GEICO Honda. How does that work? And talk Zach Bell who has the big one in Arlington that everybody's seen. He passed concussion protocols that night.

Bob: We got super lucky. I know Rick “Ziggy” Zielfelder up at Factory Connection from back in the day when we were both racing dirt bikes in New England. I knew we needed a platform, but I didn't have any money. I made a phone call and we happened to catch those guys at the perfect time. They were looking for a better helmet. Daren Borcherding over there, who was the manager of the program on site, he was fully aware of what helmets weren't doing and we had his interest immediately. He was very excited to see what we had. They'd been through a couple of concussion ridden seasons with a different helmet just the year before, and they were searching. It afforded us an opportunity to prove what we had worked and get into a program that would normally be thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars to get involved with for very little expense. And the promise that we were going to keep the riders on the track. And that was hectic. Rick was super cool, and he said, “Go see Eli at his ranch and let him test it. If Eli likes it, we'll put it in front of the rest of the group”. That was Zach Bell, Zach Osborne, Justin Bogle, and Wil Hahn. That trip to Colorado was really interesting. We spent about a full day with Eli and his family. We camped over at their place, and we rode the first day and then rode the second day on the motocross track. We spent the first day on the supercross track and Eli liked the helmet straight away. We had them go out and ride in the Shoei. He came back in, sent him out in the 6D. He came back in after 15 minutes on the supercross track we put him back in the Shoei. He went back out, did another moto, came back in, we put him back in the 6D, and then he never took the helmet off after that for the rest of the time we were there. This would have been August of 2012. I'm driving back to the airport, Robert and I and, and I got a text from Eli that said, “Hey, man, work that out because I want to wear it at Monster Energy Cup”. And I'm going, “okay, well, that's great. It ain't happening by Monster Energy Cup”, you know?  We ended up talking to the rest of the team. They all liked it. They'd all had some experiences with concussions that weren't good. And they unanimously agreed this is the right direction. So, we were off and running with Geico Honda. I promised Rick that we would have helmets for Anaheim 1, and we did. But it was by the skin of our you know what. We barely made it, and we didn't have extra smalls or smalls. We only had medium shells. And of course, Wil and Zach and all those guys needed to be in small helmets. We were padding those things out so they fit them properly. It was just crazy. It's what it took. We did whatever it took to be ready. I think Dallas was the fourth or fifth race, whatever it was. It was the weekend of the Indianapolis trade show. It's the first place we were showing our helmet to the public. Well, not really the public, but it was the first business event that we were doing. And we went to the trade show, had a very successful Saturday. One of my investors actually lives in Indianapolis so we went to his house to watch the Supercross that night. We're sitting on the couch and Zach Bell pulls the holeshot and we're all cheering. And then he just has that famous crash where he went to scrub that jump. His foot caught the lip, it peeled him off the bike and he went from 30 feet up in the air to flat ground like a ton of bricks. And honestly, I thought we were out of business. They cut to commercial, and to me it looked like he was out cold. I got a text from one of the mechanics that said, “Hey, he's up under his own power”. And I was just like, “Oh, thank God”. Zach definitely rang his bell. He probably should not have raced that night. I'll be the first to admit it, you know. But I wasn't there, and he was cleared, and he went on to race from, I think, a second to a win in the last chance or maybe a third or something to a second to qualify for the last chance qualifier and then compete in the main event where he had another pretty good crash. But he was all good. And I think that was the crash that was basically seen around the world because our phones blew up and you know, my sales guy, he got a text from a dealer that night that said, “12 helmets Monday morning, please”. It was just that nuts, you know.

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Vital MX: There's two models now. There's the ATR-1 and the ATR-2. Can you tell me a little bit about the difference? And one thing that I thought was really cool is that your helmets are rebuildable to an extent. If there's no damage to the shell they can be rebuilt for a cost, but a limited cost compared to the cost of a new helmet.

Bob: Yes. The differences are numerous. Both helmets perform exceptionally well from an energy management standpoint. The helmets interior is softer than pretty much everybody elses out there. And we had customers that were upset because the helmets were destroyed after a crash, and they had just paid $745 for one. A particular gentleman out here in California asked to meet us at Anaheim because he had gone through this a week after getting a brand new 6D. So, we met him in Anaheim, and he was telling me about his son that had a big crash in the whoops at a practice track and tore the bike all up and wrecked the new helmet. We were going to give him a discount on a replacement, which we offer a crash replacement deal. But he was bummed. I mean, he had just spent $750 on his helmet, and it was worthless. It was toast. I just told him, “Is KTM buying you the new muffler and a new fender and a new set of bars for your bike? I don't think so. Those are consumable parts in a crash. Your helmet is a consumable item and you maybe never looked at it that way, but they're single impact devices and our helmet is working different than anything else in the marketplace. It's working better and sooner in the impact event. And because of that, it's torn up and it's ruined”. And so, we started rebuilding the original ATR-1s for customers, and it was basically remanufacturing the helmet because it was not designed to be rebuilt. But man, I'm a racer. I went to the races on my own, out of my own pocket for 15 years as a local pro. And it's expensive. I know it and I get it. So, my interest was getting that customer back using his helmet as long as the shell was okay for less expense. And so, we did a bunch of rebuilds. By now, we've quit rebuilding ATR-1s. We've reduced the price on them, tooling paid for, blah, blah, blah, the new helmet is out, and the new helmet is rebuildable. So, there's the delta between the two products. The flagship helmet, the ATR-2, we improved the tech. We made it so that it could be easily rebuilt by an educated technician. And that's a service that we offer and it's a service that no other manufacturer that I'm aware of offers today. There's certainly some liability that comes along with that. So, we have to do it properly and track everything and make sure we're not putting a helmet that the shell is compromised back out into use. So that's the one caveat, if the shell is damaged and the helmet cannot be rebuilt. But our customers seem to appreciate that. And I get it. You know, if you have a young up and coming amateur kid that's got his sights set on a Loretta's championship and you're going to the big amateur races you're going through a handful of helmets in the course of a year because he's hitting the ground pretty hard a number of times. It's part of our activity. And we've just we've tried to do everything we can to control the expense.

Vital MX: You mentioned earlier when the idea came up that you were working on the prototypes that you were asked, “why aren't you involved with football helmets and the military. Has there been companies that reached out to you to discuss your technology, maybe get you involved?

Bob: Yeah, and that's an interesting topic. We could probably talk for another hour about it. We actually do have a contract on a football helmet right now and unfortunately, through COVID, the bottom fell out of this company's business. They kind of support the high school and Pop Warner section of the market, and they recently purchased a helmet company. So, they're a young startup in their own right, and they needed a better technology, energy management, technology for inside the helmets. So, we contracted with them to do a football helmet. And unfortunately for about a year and a half now, that project has been stalled. I don't know if it will ever see the light of day, but they seem to be getting going again and hopefully that project can get started because most of the hard work is done on our side. It could just be picked back up and put back into motion if they get properly funded and can drive it the rest of the way. Early on I got myself in a little bit of hot water with my investors just from the perspective that we had so many entities and people and markets coming to us to investigate our tech and consider using our tests or having us make helmets for them. It's easy to get ahead of yourself. You get caught up in that and now you're talking to an equestrian guy, and you spend a bunch of hours on that and then you're talking to a skate guy and then you're talking to a downhill skier, you know? Bode Miller has been into our shop asking about, “how do we put this into a ski helmet”? And you're not going to take a phone call from Bode and say, “no, don't come in”. One of the most valuable lessons I've learned from one of my mentors and one of my investors is you can't get the time back. I'm a passionate motorcycle and bicycle guy. I love everything two wheels. I don't care about three. I don't care about four too much. And I don't care about one. I care about two wheeled activities. I kind of learned through this period that I need to focus my energy on what we're doing. And that's really been the change over the last five years, is I've just been really trying to focus more on our products, our helmet, our technology and motorcycle and bicycle.

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