Dear Richard Branson, here’s a new business design for auxetic head protection resulting from a chance encounter with a New York City bike messenger

Kevie Metal Concept artist New York City

Kevie Metal Concept artist New York City

I was visiting New York City during the last few days in this massive vortexing motion city. There are so many people at every turn at every hour, all so busy going somewhere. But the weather was acting snarly in drizzle rain so I walked a lot. I am reading Richard Branson’s latest book, SCREW BUSINESS AS USUAL, so Branson’s encompassing thoughts were whirling inside my mind as New York whipped around me.

Last Tuesday walking back to our hotel along Madison Ave I needed to sit for a few minutes. I have a nagging  Achilles tendon that is still healing from a violent tearing a bunch of months ago from my over exuberant running, thinking I was still a teenage football player. Here’s my point for this Branson inspired essay.

I saw a street messenger sitting facing his back to me. Call it a vision or an epiphany but in my mind’s eye I saw him wearing what he wasn’t wearing. He had a skate board helmet with a couple of large reflectors facing rearward. He was wearing a hoodie underneath his helmet with a cell phone sandwiched near his ear. He had a puffy nylon down coat with a back pack slung across both shoulders. As if in animation my mind’s eye transformed his back pack into a helmet link, his safety cocoon protective armour case. I was mind forming this new shape. I opened my own smaller messenger bag to begin to sketch in my note book.  I drew a helmet integrated into a shoulder pad extended device. Along his back was both the bag plus inside his collision protection device. This new shape consumed me as the drawing took definition to its form. I had created what he should be wearing on the road combat that his profession is. If you have ever driven in fast-bike lane changing New York traffic it’s a like an Olympic level contest each time you enter the speed stream onto the pavement. Staying out of harms way is very demanding in such a dynamic, turbulent flow zone for any bike messenger. The opportunity for violent contact at speed drips like street food sliding off stainless bumpers staining streaking wheeled vehicles but especially diminishing spaces once vacated.

According to Branson, we have to shift our cultural consumer centric emphasis, I’ll paraphrase a different way to pursue business : To understand real needs you have to talk to people then appeal to their needs. How many New Yorker’s have taken the time to sit down beside a bike messenger to ask: “Would you wear a combo helmet back pack device that protects both your spine and your head?” The bike man looked at me like I was a crazy person. I persisted, ” Listen, what would make it easier to protect you on your bike, what if I offered you bike armour? “No way bro too heavy,” he didn’t even look at me while dragging on his drooping cigarette. I was trying to engage his mind not at the tourist low content exchange, but he was shunning me. “Imagine I’m the world’s smartest protective gear designer, what’s the most important thing you would want to tell him?” This time I got a different look, as if the ice between us was now melting. “Especially the helmet and the back,” I mean the words just started to tumble from him. “Look at them thin pads for my knees and elbows, it’s hardly enough.” He was wearing flimsy foam knee pads even floor tile installers have more protection. “What if you had both a backpack for carrying stuff yet super light like a crocodile tail surface that linked into your head so that you could swivel  your head ?” What if it weighted as much as a sandwich what if it also looked cool and was cool against you? “ You could make that? ” he blurted back. The city noise disappeared when he said that sentence to me.  It was so clear that no one thinks of his protection except himself. Here is the real need behaving as a design in such luminescent images bathing me like Times Square night glow of iridescent colours. ‘Fill this need , make it happen, make the world’s best biker head armour, do it for him because he is so vulnerable, do it for all bikers” I whispered to my self. Imagine testing in the combat streets of unforgiving New York, imagine if bike head armour exists Mr Branson, imagine that it protects so much better ! blog image blog image

On the flight home to Montreal I had a copy of the latest Popular Science which has an excellent article on evolving football helmet designs. Football players make their own kinetic contact, they aren’t dealing with contact compared with a bike messengers chances from New York city. Football players don’t go at the speed of New York City bike messengers either nor interact with pulling taxis performing blocking sweeps, or worse being taxi side swiped. Pro football players look like whimps when compared to bike messengers who ride every day not just on week ends to make ends meet. So why this total cultural emphasis on getting better helmets only for football players, what about all the bike messengers around the planet, what about reducing concussions for them instead, isn’t that the real helmet design need?

Let’s take the crocodile shape for example as a design start. Think of the bike messenger leaning forward over the bike. You would want a crocodile jaw covering the lower portion of this protective armour which links into the body carapace, don’t you think this sort of body head combining design strategy has been designed in Nature? Also the creature’s upper jaw blends into the pivoting head, this makes me think of a Chinese paper image of a crocodile sculpture as if eating the bike messenger head. Don’t you think both the head and body inside such a crocodile body armour would work? Let’s look at some of the very new materials available for the bike messenger carapace that dissipate kinetic energy away from his head, inside that crocodile armour.

Auxetic Materials Research Group University of Malta

Auxetic Materials Research Group University of Malta

Auxetic head inserts have been made to spread forces away from the head by a unique shape of response configuration, unlike foam the auxetic material expands upon contact distributing the load away from the impact contact point. Here is material from the University of Malta web site describing auxetic materials. Auxetic material gets fatter as it is stretched. Most other materials when stretched get thinner. If a sheet of auxetic material is hit in one location the kinetic energy is spread over the entire material, behaving as if a Snelson tension integrity web shape. Once the force has impacted the sheet relaxes back into its original shape with the dissipation of the entire kinetic energy being removed from the entire surface, rather than at just the impact point. Seems like this smart shape changing material would be ideal for protecting your head, don’t you think ? If our brains are designed to be built under assembly rules using tension integrity perhaps we should mimic Nature by making helmets that accomplish just such energy shedding dissipation before the energy reaches the brain.

Here is descriptive material from the University of Malta web site describing auxetic materials.

“Materials with a negative Poisson’s ratio (auxetic) exhibit the unusual property of getting fatter when stretched and narrower when compressed [1] (Fig. 1).

(c) Joseph N Grima, University of Malta
Fig. 1

Recent research suggests that auxetic behaviour requires a synergism between the internal structure of the material (geometry) and the deformation mechanism [2]. In fact, researchers in this field have proposed several geometries/ mechanisms which can result in a negative Poisson’s ratio (e.g. re-entrant honey-combs [1] (Fig. 1), rotating squares [3], etc.) and found that these mechanisms can operate in various forms of auxetic materials (e.g. foams, minerals, polymers) or macro-structures.

A negative Poisson’s ratio imparts on a material several enhanced characteristics such as an increased shear stiffness, increased plane fracture toughness and increased indentation resistance. The increased indentation resistance results from the fact that in auxetics, the bulk of the material flows to the zone of impact making them denser, contrary to conventional materials whereby the material flows away from the zone of impact [4].

Auxetic materials are also known to have better shock and vibration absorption  properties. They also have a natural tendency to form dome-shaped double-curved surfaces (Fig 2), unlike conventional materials which tend to form saddle-shaped surfaces.

Fig. 2

Auxetic materials may be incorporated into composites to produce materials which benefit from the enhanced properties associated with negative Poisson’s ratios.

For example, sandwich panels produced from an auxetic honeycomb core material (which is very soft) bonded to outer surface layers of a conventional fibre-reinforced composite laminate material (hard) result in a hard material which can form dome-shaped surfaces. Such materials are particularly desirable in applications that require highly curved hard surfaces, such as those found in the body parts of aircrafts and cars.

Auxetic materials and structures can also be used to replace conventional components in various products used in specialised applications to produce higher quality products. For example, auxetics can be used to make ‘smart filters’ (Fig. 3) where the pore size of the filter can be changed by varying the applied load thus controlling the size of particles that can be allowed to pass through the filter. This also permits easy cleaning of clogged filters  [5].

Fig. 3

Auxetic materials have also found their place on the operating table: a dilator for opening the cavity of an artery or similar vessels made with an auxetic component has been patented for use in heart surgery and related surgical procedures. In this application, the coronary artery is opened up by the lateral expansion of a flexible auxetic PTFE hollow rod or sheath under tension [6].

These are just a few examples that demonstrate how auxetic materials can be used to develop and manufacture new or improved structures and products that could become commercially available in the near future.”


  1. K.E. Evans et al.Nature353 (1991) 124.
  2. J.N. Grima, University of Malta Annual Report, 2002, p. 25.
  3. J.N. Grima and K.E. Evans, J. Mat. Sci. Lett.19 (2000)1563.
  4. A. Alderson, Chem. & Ind., (1999) 384.
  5. J.N. Grima et al.Adv. Mater., 12 (2000)1912; A. Alderson et al., International Patent No. PCT/GB98/03281 (1998).
  6. R.E. Moyers, US Patent No. 5108413 (1992).

As you can see it is possible to make much better head armour for a New York City bike messenger, Mr Branson. It takes a simple conversation to ask the critical question: What do you need? Such an approach is the basis for creating a better planet where, individually, we all look out for each other, certainly one of those ways is to better protect the head with the spine, crocodile design style. I hope you read this essay Mr Branson, since it’s the change that come from the simple respect for one person to sit down with another person , despite being total strangers, to say ‘ How can I make your life safer?’ By using the latest non foam behaving technologies, like auxetic materials combined with the head-back carapace crocodile designs inspired from Nature surrounding a bike messenger’s head and neck  in New York City, this rider will one day be able to get to the end of each working day more safely to see his family. It’s part of the global conversation, Mr Branson that you have inspired from a chance New York bike messenger conversation, it’s the new business of caring for each other toward doing good on our planet.

About cerebrovortex

Montreal Grandmother, Agnes Kent was saved by Raul Wallenberg from certain death, when he provided papers for her and her Mom to escape away from the Nazis. Today when asked what that escape meant, she replied,"Remind people, that while statesmen and whole countries remained silent and did nothing, a single individual chose to act, with ramifications that proved enormous. Similar choices confront us today. Write that simple truth she said, it can never be repeated often enough because the world keeps forgetting it."
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