Bike helmets made out of paper — yes, paper — very well could save lives, make Citi Bike safer and get Isis Shiffer very rich.
The idea is simple enough, if you have some basic engineering knowledge: the hexagonal honeycomb shape happens to be very well suited to absorb impact through the elastic buckling of the cell walls. The military uses the impact-absorbing honeycomb shape when dropping supplies out of helicopters. The arc of a bike helmet also allows force to be applied to it radially, or perpendicular with your head, which makes it stronger.
It’s a compelling idea for someone who loves using bike shares, but doesn’t carry a helmet around, and that person is Shiffer. She’s invented a foldable bike helmet made out of paper and glue that uses the honeycomb pattern and, she says, protects your dome piece from impact shockingly well. It’s called the EcoHelmet, and she hopes that it will become available in vending machines to riders at bike-share stations for just a few bucks.
“This was something I thought of about a year and a half ago when I was on study abroad and I wanted to do a bike share but I was terrified and never got on a bike,” Shiffer said in an interview. “The prototypes I’ve been working on really do work. I took them to a lab and they actually work better than the bottom-of-the-line polystyrene helmet.”
Shiffer, 28, graduated this spring from Pratt with a degree in industrial design. Before that she was a designer and fabricator of custom bicycles at a tiny artisan bike shop in Philadelphia called Bilenky Cycle Works. Now in Brooklyn, she’s doing freelance industrial design work for clients and working on the EcoHelmet.
Because it’s foldable, riders could carry the EcoHelmet around with them without the hassle of a solid plastic bike helmet. At around $5, the helmets are about one sixth the price of a standard bike helmet and although the EcoHelmet would only be usable for one crash, hopefully that’s still a long shelf life. And after it’s reached its useful life, you can throw it out without guilt.
“One of the things I really don’t like about regular helmets is that if they break and go into a landfill, they never biodegrade. They’re one of those 10,000-year materials,” Shiffer said.
There’s another customer that would like this product: bike shares themselves. Citi Bike has to pay an unknown but large sum of money to cover insurance for lawsuits over bike injuries. Although it’s officially ride at your own risk, the law is complicated, and lawsuits are expensive.
Just last week courts allowed a $60 million lawsuit against Citi Bike to proceed. Ronald Corwin, 75, claims he lost his sense of smell and taste after a bike accident landed him on his head while not wearing a helmet. According to the New York Post, a Manhattan appellate-court judge agreed with his argument that Citi Bike should have forced Corwin to wear a helmet last week, saying the city, “can’t have it both ways. They can’t say, ‘[He] didn’t have a helmet,’ thus blaming him for his injuries, but at the same time say, ‘We don’t provide helmets because we know our city bike-share program is not going to work if we have a helmet law.'”
Shiffer said that fabrication of the EcoHelmet will cost about $5 in the early stages, but once it’s produced at scale, it’s really just paper, glue and water-resistant material. Because they’re foldable, about 12-15 EcoHelmets could be shipped for the same price as one bicycle helmet. She says she’s received interest from several bike share programs already.
The next steps are to get the helmet certified by the standards of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the federal agency that makes sure the stuff we buy doesn’t kill us. She needs to have about 15 identical products ready for that, which she needs to make by hand. After that, if the helmet passes, it’s off to the races. Shiffer is considering a couple financing options.
“I’ve been trying to avoid Kickstarter cause it makes me jumpy [to ask people for money] but I’m probably going to do a Kickstarter cause I have no money,” she said.