LIGHT Helmets want to disrupt the headgear industry with their lightweight foam-lined helmets

Sports Business Journal

January 12, 2024

Every LIGHT helmet offered has earned a five-star rating by the independent labs of Virginia Tech.

Our Startups series looks at companies and founders who are innovating in the fields of athlete performance, fan engagement, team/league operations and other high-impact areas in sports.

World’s shortest elevator pitch: “We incorporate the latest technologies from the military, auto racing and aviation into sport helmets to provide helmets that are the safest, most protective and best performing in aiding athletic performance.”

Company: LIGHT Helmets

Location: Carlsbad, California

Year founded: 2018


Funding round to date: “We are in our Series A, raising $10 million to scale the business. We are confident we can be the No. 2 football helmet company in 2025 with that infusion.”

Who are your investors? “We’ve raised $8 million. Investors include former MLB player Jimmy Edmonds; Erik Davis, a director at R-T Specialty Insurance; Justin Bert; Andrew Arribito, a retired Navy Seal; Steve Netzely, the CEO of Havas Edge; Joe Hegener, the former CEO of TD Securities; John Sarkisian, the former founder of SKLZ.”

Are you looking for more investment? “Yes.”

Tell us about yourself, founder Nick Esayian: “I played college football and I raced automobiles professionally for 27 years in the Pirelli World Challenge Series, IMSA Series and Rolex Series. I raced for American Honda, BMW of North America and Aston Martin. Concurrent to that, I worked for Bain Capital and then started an infomercial company. Bill Simpson, who founded Simpson Racing – they made race protective equipment, helmets, seats – he and Chip Ganassi started SG Helmets, taking race tech and bringing it to football. They asked me if I was interested in purchasing the company.”

Who are your co-founders/partners? “Jimmy Edmonds is a co-founder. Playing Major League Baseball for many years, the most important ability of an athlete is availability. Jimmy understood that and knew the helmet marketplace had not been changed, there had not been disruption for years, and we were about to do that with new technology and materials, bringing stuff from the military and aviation. John Sarkisian was an innovator in the performance training space. He saw the ability for this space to be disrupted with Riddell, Schutt and Xenith being legacy companies. Concussions and head injuries were a real concern. We know football is part of the American fabric, and what could we do to impact this? Jordan Palmer, Carson’s Palmer brother, owns QB Summit and works with quarterbacks like Joe Burrow, Josh Allen and Trevor Lawrence. Jordan saw unique characteristics of our products in terms of safety and performance. He’s an investor. So is one of our players who wears the helmet, Utah quarterback Cameron Rising. He got knocked out in the Rose Bowl wearing a competitive helmet. I was sitting in the stands and said I was going to get him one of our helmets. Before I could reach out, his family reached out saying he’s wearing the No. 1 helmet on the NFL test at the time, a VICIS ZERO2. Our helmet weighs two pounds less, we can make the material different, all these advantages of our product will help you perform better on the field and keep you on the field and provide a higher level of protection. Not only did Cam wear the helmet and we kept him protected all of last year, but he and his family invested in LIGHT Helmets, which is remarkable considering you’d normally be paying the athlete versus them investing.”

How does your product work? “The goal and production of protecting an athlete is two things: keep them safe and help them perform better. A third would be it has to be economically viable. Our helmets are designed to be up to 40% lighter than a traditional helmet. Between 2017-18, the NFL made a lot of rule changes. It greatly reduced the number of concussions in terms of head-to-head impact. What it did not address, and this isn’t anyone’s fault, is when I hit you and you slam back in the ground and your head whips back, that additional weight is part of the energy equation, which is half the mass times the velocity squared. If I can reduce the mass by 40-50%, I’m reducing the kinetic energy of that impact. We’re taking two pounds off the worst part of the body to carry it on. By reducing that weight, we improve protection and help that athlete perform better. People look at this as the first football helmet that’s ever addressed improving athletic performance while also improving player safety, and being priced at a very competitive dollar amount. Our helmet that was just tested by the NFL basically tied Riddell’s No. 1 helmet and we out-performed the other eight on the list, and that’s our first entry into the NFL space.”

What problem is your company solving? “Head injuries are a concern. By introducing these disruptive helmets with these new materials, we help the players perform better, maximize performance and it gives them a competitive advantage against somebody wearing a heavier helmet, but the protective qualities are also significantly better. We have 14 physicians on our advisory board. The head of neurosurgery at Baptist Health, Dr. Michael McDermott. A forensic neurologist, Dr. Peter Cummings, who works for Tom Brady and runs TB12. Dr. Tal S. David, an orthopedic surgeon who was the Chargers head physician. By reducing weight, we take the wear and tear off the athlete but also reduce those impacts. We are also improving player performance and making it available to a wide range of people. NOCSAE creates all the rules and specifications for all football helmets. They did a study and determined that every youth football helmet for players 14 and under has to be under 3.5 pounds. We’re the only manufacturer already manufacturing helmets below 3.5 pounds.”

What does your product cost and who is your target customer? “The products cost $300 for an entry-level youth helmet, $500 for a basic high school or college helmet and just under $1,000 for our NFL helmet. Virginia Tech rates helmets from five stars to one star, kind of the gold standard of ratings, and all of our products are five-star. They are all at the lower end of the weight spectrum and we have helmets with the highest rating for all levels, including flag football. Our flag football headgear is the first product in any category at Virginia Tech to receive a perfect score, and we beat Xenith, Riddell and Schutt. We’re proud of that. That flag football space is really important because it’s a ladder system of very young players that desire to work their way up. We always want to make sure we have affordable products for the masses.”

How are you marketing your product? “We have dealers, direct sales, direct to consumer and big box retailers. We’re selling at Dick’s, Scheels and Walmart. We’re in 17 NFL locker rooms. We foresee by early 2024 we’ll be in all 32. Getting NFL players to wear our new helmet, which was approved in August, gives us visibility, and the NFL is the marketing magnifier because so many people watch it. To be one of four manufacturers is huge. Also, we’ve got starters on 20 NCAA teams and even more in high school and youth. So, creating the visibility through the NFL and NCAA and having the available delivery methods. One of those four methods is direct to consumer. You have to sell helmets to two people: the players, but also the athletic director, league, parent or executive.They are focused on safety, economics. Will the kids want to wear it? We check a lot of those boxes. Our helmets are the only ones that are resizable when they are refurbished.”

How do you scale, and what is your targeted level of growth? “This year, we expected to do between 40,000-50,000 helmets. The total number of football helmets sold in the U.S. is roughly 800,000. There are about 5.4 million players playing tackle football, and flag football players are increasing dramatically. There’s about 7 million playing right now, and our headgear can be used for soccer. There are over 12 million youth soccer players in the U.S. Our total addressable market is big. The number of competitors is fairly limited. We have a unique product, and we can scale rapidly. We expect to be a $100 million company in the next four years, and I think that’s conservative. That’s looking at tackle football, soccer, flag football, which are products we already have out, and we’ll be introducing a hockey helmet, a construction helmet, a lacrosse helmet and rugby.”

Who are your competitors, and what makes you different? “We have three competitors in the tackle football space: Riddell, Schutt and Xenith. Riddell is the industry leader in terms of market share, and their primary product is the Speedflex. They look the same but the internals are different. All those helmets use a plastic shell, and for the most part steel facemasks and sometimes titanium. We bring to the table advanced composites in shells or nylon. We’re taking this to the next level. The military has been using Kevlar for decades. No one in the football helmet space went there until SG Helmet, the precursor of LIGHT. It’s more durable, it provides a reduction in weight and attenuates energy better. The liners of our helmets are different. In our NFL helmet we use a 3D-printed material, TPU. We partnered with KOLLIDE. They won two NFL grants to develop these geometric shapes. They are designed to attenuate impact, both lighter and heavier impacts. The way they are orchestrated inside the helmet, we can do player-specific helmets to defend against the specific impacts of each position. Our helmets are lighter, from a safety perspective they perform better and they are resizable. No one else checks all those boxes.”

What’s the unfair advantage that separates your company? “We are extremely nimble. These legacy companies, Riddell is a primary example. They offered the Speedflex in 2014 and only last year did they come up with a new helmet. Their product lifespan is 10 years. In less than 30 days we took a prototype for this KOLLIDE helmet and got it approved by the NFL, and it tied one Riddell helmet and out-performed all the others, all the Schutt and Xenith helmets. We can move quickly. Another unfair advantage is the engineering firms we use are not engineering resources in-house that most of our competitors use. We’re in San Diego, the firms here that I can use have the knowledge about composites, foams, attenuation of impact, how temperature affects things in the harshest environments. Between those firms and that we are so nimble, it will be hard for competitors to keep up.”

What milestone have you recently hit or will soon hit? “The biggest milestone is the NFL approving our helmet in the highest category – recommended helmets. They release a poster every year and they chose to test our helmet in the middle of the cycle, which they’ve never done before. Not only did we end up on a poster, but on Dec. 1 we submitted the newest version, Gladiator ATK. That helmet will perform better and comes in at a lighter weight. That we are on that NFL poster and have access to those players and we have owners like Jordan Palmer or athletes like Cam Rising, we know the permeation of the NFL will happen. The visibility and credibility that brings at all levels will supercharge our business results.”

What are the values that are core to your brand? “People that walk into our facility want to buy helmets for their kids. There is not one person that comes in that I don’t go out of my way to shake hands. We’re open Monday through Friday. That means somebody took off work, brought their child in to get fitted and did research. Seeing those people, that’s important to me. Jeff Garcia played in the NFL and his boys wear this helmet. I went to a Pop Warner meeting and Jeff said this technology should be worn by everyone. My son wears this helmet. You can’t have a bigger endorsement than that. Cam Rising’s father wrote a letter to me basically stating there was nothing scarier than seeing him have a head injury. For him to not only endorse and invest in the company but share that dad to dad is important. The value is that the same helmet that Cam Rising wore last year is the helmet a high school player wore. We’re here to make money like anyone else and we’re going to, but we won’t do it at the expense of the athlete. At the NFL level, the impacts, size and speeds of those athletes are different than a six-year-old. We could make cheaper, heavier helmets, but we choose to be at that 3.5-pound weight or below and it costs money for those materials. The athlete is why we are doing this. We are here to make money and protect kids and we feel all of these contact sports equate to better kids. We want to make sure the greatest number of young men and women, whether it’s flag or tackle football, and soon to be hockey and other sports, their parents know they have the best equipment available that includes materials that have been used in racing, the military and military aviation to protect people. They are finally getting to the football field because someone disruptive brought those to bear. We are conscious to ensure the product works on the field and not just the lab.”

What does success ultimately look like for your company? “Our goal is to create a global brand where we sell and are recognized as the most protective head gear company. That will include stick-and-ball sports, Ebike, construction and anything else from the shoulders up. It may be in digestibles, pre-workout, a recovery drink mix to ensure and optimize mental acuity. We feel we can be the next Under Armour or Nike, and when you build credibility in the most scrutinized helmet space – football – you will have credibility that allows you to go into other sports, and that’s the goal. Is the goal to sell this thing? Of course. We’re here to build a profitable business. We know we can do that and offer players, universities and parents the best product, and we feel the money will follow.”

What should investors or customers know about you — the person, your life experiences — that shows they can believe in you? “I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life, but I started as a kid that probably lacked confidence until I played football. It gave me the opportunity to perform, to build friendships I probably wouldn’t have built elsewhere. I’ve worn all these materials. I watched my race teammate on Jan. 6, 2001, die at a practice from a closed head injury. I’m committed. My two boys play hockey and my younger boy plays football. My commitment is to my boys, the sport that made me the person I am today and my investors that believed in not only me but the products and the materials that protected them. But more so than any of that, it’s Cam Rising that trusted me to wear a new product, it’s to the plumber that brings his kid in that’s spending $300-$600 on a helmet and taking the day off from work to have his kid fitted. It’s important to me that those people trust me. For an investor, I’ve built successful businesses before and made a lot of money in this space and other spaces. I bring in the best people and we operate with the highest level of integrity. We’re here to make money while providing those products.”

Why is this such a passion project for you? “In 2018, I was getting to the end of my auto racing career. I was at the Long Beach Grand Prix and Boris Said told Bill Simpson: ‘You should sell your football helmet company to Esayian. You don’t know football, he played football, you guys race cars and have that in common.’ At first, Bill paid lip service to the concept. He later said to me: ‘I changed auto racing with my composite helmets, seats, head-neck restraint system, suits, these advanced materials. I started this football helmet and I’m bringing these technologies to football, but I’m too late in my career and I don’t have the energy to do this. I’m going to pass the torch to you. I don’t want my last company, my legacy to fail. You need to get it across the goalline.’ So when I took it over, I made a commitment to Bill and my investors, friends and family that helped me embark on this mission to be successful but also change football. Every time I watch a game and see somebody’s head hit the ground, I know we can change that. We have kids and teams in here all the time and my commitment to them is to provide the best equipment available that is economically viable so they can do that safely and play these sports so they can learn. There’s so many life lessons learned in a hockey rink, playing rugby, football – we want these kids to play and learn how to control tempers, operate within the rules, have grit, determination, that small goals equate to bigger goals and the interaction, kindness and love between athletes can spread to other aspects of life. That’s the passion part for me, when Bill brought it to the table, maximizing that, and these great kids I see every day.”

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