Mike Tyson understood how the human brain works. When the lethal second half of the former world heavyweight boxing champion’s trademark combination—right hook to the body, right uppercut to the jaw—hit home, the powerful punch often rendered the recipient unconscious. In fact, “Iron Mike” won 26 of his first 28 fights by knockout or stoppage, with no fewer than 16 of those coming in the opening round of the match.

Swedish neurosurgeon Hans von Holst and business partner Peter Halldin (a researcher at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm) claim approximately two-thirds of all motorcyclists—not to mention bicyclists, equestrians, pedestrians, and skiers, among others—who hit their heads in falls do so at some angle to the ground, not a perfectly straight vertical drop, potentially subjecting their brains, helmeted or not, to the same “rotational motion trauma” as a Tyson knuckle sandwich.

In the mid-1990s, von Holst and Halldin envisioned a system that could help protect the brain from these types of blows. Extensive research and testing ultimately led to MIPS—an acronym for "Multi-directional Impact Protection System"—in which a low-friction layer permits 10–15mm of sliding action independent of the direction of impact. According to von Holst and Halldin, that movement can significantly reduce sudden-rotational-energy transfer to the brain and lessen the likelihood of the stretching, tearing, or twisting associated with concussions and other brain injuries.

Some background: von Holst founded KTH’s neuronic-engineering department, “a cross-scientific cooperation between the Karolinska Institute and KTH aiming to develop technological solutions to medical problems, primarily within neurosurgery.” Halldin teaches biomechanics and neuronics there. Svein Kleiven, renowned for his finite-element model of the brain—a primary research tool for MIPS, of which Kleiven previously was a part owner—is the department head.

MIPS has thus far licensed its patented technology to 60 helmet manufacturers in the bicycle, snow, equestrian, and motorcycle spaces. The flexible, thin plastic insert—often in plain sight, sometimes disguised in a stretchy, Lycra-like fabric—is typically installed between the interior comfort padding and the EPS liner of the helmet. A dime-size yellow MIPS decal affixed to the lower left rear of the shell is the only external visual cue to the insert’s existence.

Supertech M10
The Supertech M10 represents Alpinestars’ first foray into motocross-helmet design and is fitted with one of the latest-generation MIPS inserts. Retail pricing ranges from $480–$650. (Top of page) Bell makes two Star models: the carbon-fiber Race Star Flex ($700–$900) and, illustrated here, the MIPS-equipped TriMatrix-composite Star ($470–$590). Both helmets are DOT, ECE, and Snell M2015 certified.Illustration by Jim Hatch

Using high-speed photography and assorted sensors in its own state-of-the-art lab (helmeted rubber-covered aluminum head forms are dropped from 2.2 to 3.1 meters onto a 45-degree anvil), MIPS has validated its claims time and again. So why isn’t every motorcycle-helmet maker chartering flights to Stockholm to broker a deal?

“If they take safety seriously, they should,” Halldin said. “Sometimes they don’t think consumers will pay anything extra for safety. Also, when we started we understood the bike and ski markets were simpler to start to work with for a smaller company like MIPS.

“We restarted our work to attract the motorcycle helmet brands. We have succeeded with motocross, but street helmets have been more difficult.”

“In the last three or four years, we have restarted our work to attract the motorcycle-helmet brands,” he added. “We have succeeded with motocross, but street helmets have been more difficult.”

In fact, leading brands such as AGV, Arai, HJC, Schuberth, Shark, and Shoei do not use MIPS in any of their products. Bell (whose former parent company, BRG Sports, once owned a chunk of MIPS) sells five helmets—two street and three dirt—fitted with MIPS inserts. Kabuto also uses MIPS in its street helmets.

“Angular acceleration” and “rotational motion trauma” might not be dinner-table talk, but in racing circles such terms keep brains whirring day and night; after all, riders are the sport’s greatest asset. Wearable airbags, once the butt of jokes, are now mandatory in MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3. Beginning this year, helmets used in MotoGP and World Superbike competition must pass new FIM homologation requirements. Only designs that meet current ECE, JIS, or Snell standards may be submitted for testing. And yes, oblique impacts are part of the Swiss sanctioning body’s certification protocol.

MIPS drop-test
MIPS uses a drop-test speed for motorcycle helmets of 7.5 meters per second. Impact angle is 45 degrees. The low-friction MIPS insert allows 10–15mm of sliding motion in all directions. That sliding lasts for the blink of an eye—3–10 milliseconds—under a 1,650-pound load.Jonas Kullman

The FIM doesn’t work directly with companies that supply technology to manufacturers because such association might suggest one approach is perceived as better than another.

“We only want to verify the results,” FIM Marketing Director Fabio Muner explained. “Everybody can have his own idea about the shape of the helmet, the technology of the EPS, MIPS, etc. We want to raise the bar for safety and verify everything is worthy of world-championship riders.”

MIPS is not without competition. Arguably the most high-profile challenger is 6D, which claims its proprietary Omni-Directional Suspension (ODS) technology "allows for 6 degrees of free-motion displacement during an impact, regardless of your head shape, angle of impact, or how tight your helmet fits." Unlike MIPS, 6D designs and manufactures its own street and off-road motorcycle, bicycle, and even youth helmets.

MIPS, meanwhile, must sell a traditionally conservative industry and, ultimately, consumers on the execution of a concept that isn’t easy for all to grasp. One thing is certain: Whereas helmet discussions have in recent years come to revolve around pricing and features—overall fit, ease of face-shield replacement, removable/washable comfort liners, number and effectiveness of vents, even colors and graphics options—safety is once again at the forefront of the conversation.