News | May 7, 2018

Protect the Force lands major distribution deal, ramping up body armor manufacturing in Tennessee

Invented at Natick Labs, Army’s patented body armor developed into successful product

Protect the Force, a fast-growing tech firm in Boston, has landed a five-year foreign military distribution agreement potentially worth $400 million after developing an Army technology into a commercial product, a success that started with lobster tails.

Yes, that’s right, lobster tails were an inspirational design element in the company’s armored shirt, which improves ballistic protection for the arms, chest, and neck area of soldiers and law enforcement personnel while improving mobility and reducing overall weight.

Like the lobster’s tail, the interconnected armor components in the Flex9Armor shirt protect body areas that plate carriers don’t: the arms, shoulders, neck, and torso.

“You’ve seen a lobster tail, how it provides plate protection but still allows fast movement? Well, I wanted to incorporate that into an armored shirt to improve range of motion,” said Francisco Martinez, the chief technology officer at Protect the Force and co-inventor of the technology also known to the military as the Ballistic Combat Shirt.

Weighing in at 3.2 pounds, the large size shirt is 30 percent lighter than the Interceptor Body Armor components it replaced, which were loathed by U.S. ground forces for their restrictive, uncomfortable fit and weight.

“By virtue of design and function, because it’s close to the skin, it reduces the redundancy of the IBA’s add-on protectors,” Martinez said.

Army Partnership

“In 2012 there was an Army request (broad agency announcement) for a new body armor garment,” Martinez said.

With his lobster tail idea, Protect the Force applied for and partnered with the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center on the research project. “Our whole goal was to improve the wearability of armor, particularly in the arms and shoulders, while reducing weight,” Martinez said.

Though lighter, the Flex9Armor can still stop a .44 Magnum bullet.

“Instead of having to take apart your plate carrier so you can attach a DP and yoke and collar assembly, you can just put on a shirt,” said Robert DiLalla, an Army engineer at Natick and co-inventor of the ballistic combat shirt. “You don’t need a buddy to help you put it on, and it’s form fitting, so it moves comfortably.”

When the research was complete, 90 percent of soldiers who tested it said they wanted it, a remarkably high acceptability rate for a new technology.

Together, the Army and Protect the Force filed for and received a patent on the technology.

Exclusive Patent License

In 2015, Dan Swanson, a senior technology manager at TechLink, facilitated an exclusive patent license agreement for the design.

“We assisted Protect the Force with understanding the licensing process, and helped the company to prepare its commercialization plan and license application,” Swanson said.

TechLink is the Department of Defense’s national partnership intermediary. It provides businesses with no-cost assistance when they decide to commercialize technologies invented in defense labs, like the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center, which has dozens of technologies still available.

Economic Impact

Not surprisingly, military officials wanted the new product in the field.

But Protect the Force was disappointed when it didn’t win the federal government contract for the Ballistic Combat Shirt, Martinez said.

Other companies that owned manufacturing facilities were able to offer aggressive pricing in an open bid.

But by obtaining an exclusive patent agreement, Protect the Force was alone in the commercial, state and local government, and foreign markets.

“And this led us to raise money and open up our own manufacturing facility,” Martinez said.

Jacksboro, Tennessee, is now home to Protect the Force’s 22,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.

“Any innovative product takes time to take hold, and with our in-house production we’ve been able to provide samples to SWAT teams across the country where we’re starting to see sales,” Martinez said.

“And the distribution agreement is going to increase our ability to meet foreign and domestic demand surges,” he said.

The fulfillment of the large order for Flex9Armor will necessitate an expansion of Protect the Force’s manufacturing capacity, hiring more employees, and likely contracting with other U.S. companies.

Now, Protect the Force is leveraging their capabilities to adapt and develop new armor products for the U.S. Marine Corps. And talks are moving forward on the adoption of Flex9Armor by the armed forces of U.S. allies, Martinez said.

“We’re continuing to innovate, to find improvements because this technology is good for the warfighter and it’s helping create jobs,” he said.