Paper bike helmet wins design prize

It is made out of paper and it folds like an accordion — characteristics you wouldn’t expect to describe a bike helmet. But, Isis Shiffer thinks you should re-think that and she just won the James Dyson award for her disposable helmet.

The 28-year-old industrial designer recently graduated from the Pratt Design Institute in New York city and she tested her disposable paper helmet at London’s Imperial College. She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about her award-winning design.

Carol Off: For those who haven’t seen it, can you describe your bike helmet?

Isis Shiffer: Sure, it is a honeycomb paper-folding-recyclable helmet for bike share. It folds down really, really small. It’s like a large banana and unfolds into a full-size bike helmet.

Isis Shiffer's paper helmet

Comparison of a regular bike helmet to Isis Shiffer’s award-winning disposable paper helmet. (Dyson)

CO: And it’s made out of paper?

IS: It is made of coated paper, so it will be waterproof … and in that particular honeycomb configuration it is incredibly good at absorbing impact. It will work, it will pass the same crash certification as any regular polystyrene helmet.

CO: Have you had the chance to test it as they test other bike helmets?  

IS: Absolutely, I mean I wouldn’t have put this much energy into designing it if I hadn’t known the material was sound. I actually had the opportunity to crash test it when I was studying at Imperial College in London, they happen to have the crash apparatus. It looks like a big guillotine, you drop a weight on what you’re testing and there’s a bunch of sensors to tell you how it’s holding up…

[The helmet does] better than the bottom-of-the-line ones. I probably shouldn’t say this but the regulations are not that stringent. Which is not really great but I don’t see too many issues with it CPSC regulations.

Isis Shiffer's foldable helmet

Isis Shiffer with her award-winning foldable helmet. (Dyson)

CO: How did you come up with the idea?

IS: Well, I started by looking into materials that could be recycled and absorb impact. Because, if it’s going to be a limited-use product, obviously I don’t want these things ending up in landfills. Polystyrene, which is what regular helmets are made out from, is a non-biodegradable material, it lasts like 10,000 years in some rubrics.So that was where I started, trying to find the materials that absorb impact, recyclable, and could be manipulated into a helmet shape and it kind of went from there.

Isis Shiffer's foldable helmet

Isis Shiffer’s foldable paper helmet compared to a large banana. (Dyson)

CO: You say it is waterproof, but for how long? If it is honeycomb I’m sure water gets trapped in there after you’re on the bike for a number of hours, so what happens?

IS: Well it’s not really waterproof in keeping water off your head. It’s more that the materials itself has to be able to survive a rainstorm. So your head is going to get wet anyways.

It’s very important to me that it is available to anyone who needs a helmet. So, if we can’t keep it under that price, I want to make up the difference with sponsorships.
– Isis Shiffer, industrial designer

CO: How much would you sell this helmet for?

IS: The target is $5.00 a unit. It’s very important to me that it is available to anyone who needs a helmet. So, if we can’t keep it under that price, I want to make up the difference with sponsorships.

CO: You have won the James Dyson Prize, $55,000, what are you going to do with that money?

IS: That is incredibly welcomed seed money for my company. I just started a consultancy in Brooklyn called Spitfire Industry. This is going to allow me to go from being one person on a laptop to an actual design firm.

CO: Congratulations! I’ll just ask you one more question because we’ve had stories about this before but your name is Isis? Does that ever give you any trouble?

IS: I am not changing it. I thought about it, but that’s my name and I’ve been here longer and I’m a hell of a lot better looking than they are. It’s staying.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Isis Shiffer

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