Paper bike helmet bags James Dyson prize

Friday 3 Feb 2017

Proof that innovation does not have to be expensive, this year's Dyson Prize goes to American designer Isis Shiffer for her invention of the EcoHelmet, a foldable paper helmet that aims to reduce the risk of cyclists getting head injuries for just $5.

While wearing a bicycle helmet is not a silver bullet against accidents, it can reduce the risk of incurring fatal head injuries in the event of one, as various statistics have shown over the years. Shiffer was inspired to come up with the EcoHelmet when she noticed a problem with bike-sharing programs – namely that rental bicycles didn't come with helmets. Tired of lugging her own around and certain that she wasn't the only one, she decided to come up with a solution that would make it easier and safer for more people to ride a bike.

While there have been earlier attempts to come up with a cardboard helmet, they have for the most part been a niche idea. If all goes to plan, the EcoHelmet has the potential to reach a far larger audience. Made from cardstock paper, Shiffer's invention is designed to be affordable, recyclable and safe. Its radial honeycomb cell structure enables it to withstand impact from all directions, protecting the user's head just as well as a regular polystyrene helmet, she says. In a test using a crash-testing rig, it was able to withstand the impact caused by a 10-pound object dropped from a height of three feet.

Shiffer spent a year and a half perfecting the design while still a student at New York's Pratt Institute of Design (she has since graduated) and tested the prototype at Imperial College in London while on an exchange program in the UK. "They had a European standard helmet crash setup that allowed me to gather enough data on Ecohelmet's proprietary honeycomb configuration to know it was viable and worth developing," she said.

Apart from bragging rights, Shiffer also receives £30,000 to further develop her invention as international winner of the James Dyson Award. For a start, further testing needs to be done before it can be sold in the US as federal safety standards require bike helmets to be able to withstand impact from the equivalent of a six-and-a-half feet drop. She has since joined forces with a team of LA-based branding, retail and marketing veterans to realize her goal of bringing the EcoHelmet to market. It is expected to sell for around $5 and its foldable design means we could see it being dispensed from vending machines at bike-share stations.

The James Dyson Award is an international competition that challenges design and engineering students and recent graduates to come up with innovative solutions to the world's problems.

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