The best advice former Washington Redskin Shawn Springs received was from his late father, who was also a onetime National League Football player.
“Football is a platform for the next level,” his dad told the athlete-turned-businessman. “He told me to develop relationships, whether it’s a banker or someone at American Express, a real estate developer, whatever.”
So, Springs built his platform. If a child of a corporate executive wanted to meet him, he said yes. If Springs wanted a face-to-face with somebody, he used his NFL prestige to get access. Every opportunity was a bridge to another opportunity.
“I bought a stadium suite,” said Springs, now 43, which he shared with quarterback Mark Brunell. “It was about meeting people. About learning.”
He learned what he could from the owners of the teams on which he played, even if it was a two-minute chat with Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots. He mined the owners for business cues, such as the way Paul Allen of the Seattle Seahawks invested in his franchise and players.
Springs is using those smarts as founder and chief executive of Windpact, an early-stage company based in Leesburg, Va.
Windpact is a small company with big ambitions. Springs wants to crack the market serving athletes, soldiers, recreational facilities and workplaces where people are at risk from blows to the head and body.
The company is tackling a competitive space dominated by growing concern over chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a widespread degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others.
“We are focused on any sort of impact protection,” Springs said. “If you think of an impact, we want to solve for it. A roller coaster padding for the head. An older person who falls. We can do panty pads.”
The company has 15 products in the pipeline and is tacking toward $1 million in revenue this year. The founder is hoping for a big contract in 2019 that could bring economies of scale along with profits.
Springs has invested $500,000 of his own money. Windpact is raising $10 million to fund its growth while it lives on the nearly $4 million Springs initially raised from friends and families, including from business executives with whom Springs has cultivated a relationship over the years.
Windpact’s 10 employees include sports marketers, scientists, engineers and even a Hollywood costume designer and sculptor who made creations for films including “Black Panther,” “Thor” and “Planet of the Apes.”
Windpact is not a manufacturer. It has partners in Boston, Detroit and Southeast Asia that make its products.
“We make anything from liners inside the helmets to liner systems that can go inside the car, like above the head,” Springs said.
So how did he get there?
It’s Networking 101. It’s one of the most common characteristics of successful people: make contacts, work a room, stay in touch and when you see an opportunity, grab it.
In a 13-year football career that spanned Seattle, Washington and New England, Springs cobbled together a cadre of go-to guys, including real estate developers, telecom chiefs, health-care bigwigs and even the former president of Harley-Davidson, Keith Wandell, who sits on Windpact’s board of advisers.
“Keith had the same kind of leadership and grind as Joe Gibbs,” Springs said, referring to the former Redskins coach. “You respected that grit. As a wannabe and growing CEO, I would take a little bit of nugget from each of those guys. ”
When wireless executive Mike Millegan asked a 22-year-old Springs to speak to a sales team, Springs asked, “What does an athlete have to say to a marketing team?”
“How tough you are and how hard you have to work to get to the position you got to in football,” Millegan told him.
“That was the first time I made the correlation that lessons of sports could be applied to business,” Springs said.
Springs had been interested in business since his days at Ohio State University, where he was a star cornerback and drafted by the Seattle Seahawks third overall in the 1997 NFL Draft.
He wasn’t thrilled at first about Seattle.
“I cried on draft day. It wasn’t cool then,” said Springs, who lives in Leesburg and grew up mostly in the Washington area. In those years, “more people showed up at a tech conference that at Seahawks games.”
But Seattle was becoming more than just the home of Boeing, the aerospace giant.
“One of my neighbors was working for a company selling books online,” he said. “That turned out to be Amazon. One guy worked for a company selling $3 coffee. That was Starbucks. One worked for Microsoft. It was a special moment, being an athlete and just being around that type of innovation.”
Springs, whose salary would top out at around $7 million during his five years with the Redskins, early in his career put some money to work in real estate in the Dallas area, where his father had played for the Cowboys.
But he would have to wait for years until he spotted his big opportunity. It began when he invited a business executive to his Redskins suite, where he played after Seattle. The executive was Ken Duffy of Safety First, a company that manufactures child-safety products such as car seats and strollers.
Duffy sent Springs and his then-pregnant wife a garage full of Safety First products to thank him for the tickets.
In the pile was a car seat. It got Springs thinking.
“If this technology can protect kids in accidents up to 45 miles per hour, could this be repurposed to protect athletes on the football field?” After all, he said, “football is a series of car accidents.”
So he began to research impact technology.
Springs knew head injuries were a growing problem. He had been dinged during 13 seasons in the National Football League, including a Redskins Monday Night Football game against the Philadelphia Eagles that left him unconscious.
“I woke up, and people were standing over me,” he said. “I could hear people and stare at them. But I could not move.”
“When my dad played, they were getting knocked out and getting smelling salts,” he said.
He talked to Safety First about its technology. Early on, it assisted Windpact in adapting the technology and patenting for what is now the product known as Crash Cloud, for helmets.
Springs partnered with a local engineering firm in Alexandria that had worked on nuclear submarines to refine the technology. Springs patented his product in 2014.
“We don’t make the helmets,” he said. “We make the helmet liners.”
His sports marketing sense told him to hire a Boston branding firm to come up with a catchy name. Windpact was born.
Windpact recently signed a two-year, $600,000 contract with the U.S. Army to develop padding for combat helmets.
It has several other deals in the works, and hopes its technology will find applications in everything from cycling to the military, skiing to equestrians, soccer to automobiles. Windpact sees opportunities protecting the elderly and amusement park patrons, too. There might even be customers in industries that ship breakable goods.
“The big explosion could happen a few different ways,” Springs said. “One is, we bring on sports technologies and helmets in protective gear. Another big opportunity for us is impact protection in the automotive space.”
The company’s future is uncertain, but Springs is still tapping his business brain trust. He spent a day at Google Ventures a year ago. He speaks to Windpact’s advisers regularly. And when he is turned down after pitching an investor, he learns from it.
“I ask them to tell me what I can do better. It goes back to my playing days and watching the game tape to see where I got beat so I can make that correction.”
He said the professional game he played for 13 years gave him an education.
“Most of the things people learn in business school, I learned in the NFL,” he said. “Networking was more valuable than money.”