This Folded Paper Fans Out Into a Full-Size Bike Helmet

The EcoHelmet is a foldable, recyclable helmet constructed of paper with a water-resistant coating. (James Dyson Award)

The EcoHelmet is a foldable, recyclable helmet constructed of paper with a water-resistant coating. (James Dyson Award)

Isis Shiffer’s life revolves around bikes.

While working at Bilenky Cycle Works in Philadelphia, she designed custom bikes. Each one had its own artful flair—a tiny metal manta ray delicately perched atop the top tube, or art deco flourishes along each joint.

Now based in New York City, the designer rides her “uglified” '70s Viner dubbed “Stanley” almost everywhere she goes. If she’s not on her trusty steed, she rents a bike.

These days, such a fervor for cycling is easier to satiate than ever, with bike share programs popping up around the globe—from Malaysia to Alaska. But Shiffer noticed one thing conspicuously missing from most of these stations: Helmets. With more than 800 cyclist deaths in the U.S. in 2015, concern is rising for the hoards of bare heads bobbing to their beats while pedaling the city streets.

To fill this gap, Shiffer created EcoHelmet—a foldable, recyclable helmet constructed of paper with a water-resistant coating. When flattened, the helmet is roughly the same size and shape as a banana, but it fans out into a full-size helmet. The whole thing is reminiscent of the honeycomb tissue paper balls strung from the ceiling at parties. But unlike those flimsy decorations, this gear can take a punch.

This week her roll towards production just got a push. EcoHelmet is this year’s 2016 James Dyson Award winner, which comes with $45,000 for continued product development.

The international competition, now in its 14th year, “celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers,” according to the website. The winning designs are all clever but technically feasible products that offer real-world solutions to significant problems. Runners-up in the competition include Respia, an asthma management system that helps the user monitor medication usage and tracks lung health with a wearable patch, and Smart Contact Lens Platform, a contact lens that can monitor the wearer’s blood glucose for improved diabetes treatment.

"EcoHelmet solves an obvious problem in an incredibly elegant way. But its simplicity belies an impressive amount of research and development,” James Dyson says in the company’s press release about the award. “I look forward to seeing EcoHelmets used in bike shares across the world."

The helmet owes its strength to its proprietary honeycomb design, Shiffer explains. Regular honeycomb paper is known for its impact-absorbing powers and is regularly used in boxes and padding in the shipping industry. But these patterns all have parallel cells. “You can hold it up and see all the way through,” she says. EcoHelmet, however, uses a radial pattern, so each cell gets larger the further away from the head it is.

“It can absorb a blow from the front, the back, the side. Every blow is perpendicular to the head all around the helmet,” she says. “It works almost better than polystyrene in the way it spreads impact around.”

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InnovationMaya Wei-Haas