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the challenge

Instead of being embraced by sports helmet makers, a concussion sensor developed by Danny Crossman, co-founder and chief executive officer of Impakt Protective Inc., is being shunned. How can Impakt Protective overcome liability issues and make contact sports safer for kids?Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

With sports-related concussions making headlines, you'd think a screening tool designed to make contact sports safer for children would be a slam dunk.

Not so, says Danny Crossman, co-founder and chief executive officer of Impakt Protective Inc., which developed smart wireless helmet sensors under the brand Shockbox. When attached to a sports helmet, the sensor sends an alert – via wireless transmission to a tablet or smartphone – telling a coach or parent when a player has suffered a hit to the head and how hard. If the impact is substantial enough, the player may be at risk for concussion, and that critical information can help determine whether a player needs to stop playing and be checked by a doctor.

But instead of being embraced by helmet manufacturers, the Ottawa company has encountered roadblocks. Helmet makers have warned consumers that adding the Shockbox sensor may void the helmet's warranty.

The sensors, which weigh one ounce, have been tested in multiple clinical research studies, including in concussion research by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Mr. Crossman maintains adding the sensor has no effect on the performance of the helmet.

"Sports like football are synonymous with litigation now because of concussions," Mr. Crossman says. "Helmet manufacturers want to protect their own liability exposure. But a lot of people just use that as a means of evasion when they could easily include the sensor in their test standard."

Impakt Protective vows to cover the warranty if a helmet manufacturer refuses to honour one based on evidence that Shockbox caused the failure, but no case has come to court yet.

A former bomb-disposal officer with the British military who developed combat helmet sensors for the U.S. Army and Marines, Mr. Crossman teamed up with software developer Scott Clark, a hockey dad and coach, to launch Impakt Protective in 2010. The company has four employees and declines to disclose its annual revenue. The sensors, which retail for $180 for football or hockey, are sold on the company's website, as well as through sports equipment distributors and Amazon.

Mr. Crossman says the reaction from athletic trainers and coaches – the company's primary sales target, particularly at high schools and universities – has been positive. Their marketing strategy is to counter what they call manufacturers' scare tactics through education.

With several competitors vying for an estimated North American market worth $1.2-billion, Impakt Protective needs to increase its market share, but that's challenging in the face of such negativity.

The Challenge: What's the best way for Impakt Protective to handle the roadblock posed by sports equipment manufacturers?


Rico DiGiovanni, president and partner, Spider Marketing Solutions Inc., Toronto

I love the name and branding. It deserves to get noticed because here's a product with a really tangible benefit. I agree with their current strategy about education, but they have to dial that up and should develop more PR activity. While I thought their website was slick and I loved the video content, their Twitter feed is primarily the brand just putting something out and hoping people react to it. You want to get more of a conversation going between the brand and interested individuals, as opposed to just broadcasting news. They should drive harder to get those engagements happening.

The whole angle about objections to this product from the helmet manufacturers could be leveraged to a positive PR spin. The press loves the little guy getting beat up by the big guy. It's a David and Goliath story and one so easily slanted toward the product.

I'd also suggest they start targeting moms as the ones most likely to adopt usage of the product to protect their children. To that end, I'd reach out to the mom bloggers, mom communities online and mom associations. Get the story out to them and they'll make sure the coaches and trainers hear about it.

Axle Davids, founder of the branding and marketing firm Distility Branding, Toronto

The name of this product is a blessing to anyone who wants to get in their way, because "Shockbox" sounds like some kind of torture device. Your name is your most important marketing tool. If your goal is to create a message about protection, you couldn't have a worse name. If they ultimately want to work with the helmet manufacturers, the name is a further disadvantage.

An education strategy for marketing is good when you have the first mover advantage, but when other people start to come into the market, at a certain point, education is done. Once everyone is aware, what matters is differentiation. That's when people are looking at your site and then looking at another site. Now warranties, cost, service and performance have to be differentiated in order to win.

Tony Vlismas, head of market strategy at the mobile software firm Polar Mobile Group Inc., Toronto

I'd go the route of using case studies. Show the people who have great stories. Let their users share their journey in the ad campaign, trade booths and on their website. Let prospects hear first-hand about how this product saved their life, how it shaved seconds off when rushing a player to the hospital, about how they play better because of peace of mind. Suddenly, they're creating this cloud of comfort. The negative stuff is difficult to remember when you have a human face telling you their version of the truth.

A marketing campaign that counters the confusion around voiding warranty can simply add fuel to the fire. My guess is the typical consumer isn't aware of all this. So Impakt should leapfrog this and go after the messaging of security and staying safe.


Use the David vs. Goliath angle

Take advantage of the negative messaging against their product to generate coverage and sympathy.

Engage with customers

Improve social media by engaging people more in conversation rather than just broadcasting news from the brand.

Tell a story

Invite users to share stories about their potentially lifesaving experiences with the product.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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