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Business & Economy

Interview: Judith McMinn, Rezon

The links between sport and serious long-term brain injuries are becoming increasingly severe. And expensive. In this country, against a background of links between ex-footballers, at all levels, and dementia and other similar diseases, a group of rugby players are preparing a court case against the world’s governing bodies. As science evolves, evidence mounts and case studies pile up, all sports are under scrutiny to do more and accept liability. In Annfield Plain, County Durham, meanwhile, a new company, led by Judith McMinn, has developed a product that could be a game-changer. Designed to lessen the impact of devastating, repeated trauma, the Halos could significantly reduce the headache facing the entire sporting world. Here, Colin Young meets the head of Rezon to find out more.

For more than 20 years, Judith McMinn has pondered one very simple question.

Why do we protect our shins and teeth in sport, but not our brain?

She’s dedicated her life to find the answer. 

In years to come, Judith is convinced that head-worn protection – more importantly offering significant brain protection – will become as much a part of the everyday sporting apparel as shinpads, gloves or gum shields.

A schoolfriend’s injuries suffered in a hockey match initiated Judith’s personal interest in this complex subject. 

And she has never stopped asking questions and seeking answers since.

And now, after a career which included a stint with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Judith is using her own innovation and passion to protect men, women and children across the sporting world.

She has invented and patented the Rezon (pronounced Ree-zon) Halos; a head band designed to offer 60 per cent more protection from the rotational injuries which, over a prolonged period, are more damaging to the brain.

The plan now is to work with all sports, to help make a short and long-term difference.

Judith says: “Rugby and hockey were the two sports that were played at the school I went to, and there was always a great focus on performing well. 

“And yet, we put all that in jeopardy. 

“We know how the brain develops as a child and an adult, and now we know about repetitive hits and sub-concussive hits. 

“Over the years, I have asked a lot of people – and I mean, I’ve asked lots and lots and lots of people – why do we not do more to protect ourselves? 

“And surely now that question is even more valid?

“You get a raft of answers – people tell you, ‘we don’t tackle with our brains’ – but that just underlines to me that we take the brain for granted.

“We forget it determines mood, thinking and processing ability. 

“Our heads are repairable – the brain is not. 

“Over the last couple of years, there’s been increasing interest, and a greater amount of press, around former footballers and rugby players who have developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 

“And that made me ask, ‘what is there on the market that offers brain protection – not head protection?’ 

“And there we are, there’s the gap.”

Born and brought up in the small town of Dungannon, 50 miles west of Belfast, Judith is from the same generation as the Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls, which recently so wonderfully captured the days leading up to the Good Friday Agreement.

Her parents still live in the town having spent years, she says, dealing with the aftermath of The Troubles, as prominent employees at the local council.

“Growing up, we suffered, of course,” she says. 

“Our town was bombed 19 times in 21 years, on both sides; car bombs, buildings. 

“There’s a great scene in Derry Girls, where the aunt has booked a hair appointment and she’s going mad because she won’t make it to the town because there’s a bomb and a bridge is closed. 

“That’s the way people talked. 

“Of course, many, many, many people suffered in that, but it became normal. 

“It just became a news item that moved down the schedules.

“After the Good Friday Agreement, there was definitely a change within the community. 

“It was just the sense of peace, in simple things like less stress when you did go to Belfast. 

“It didn’t all go away, but it did change and brought peaceful prosperity, investment, better jobs, better house prices and a sense of community and civic pride.

“How could you have civic pride when someone blows the city up every year?”

Like many students from the area, she studied law at Dundee University – but regretted never studying dentistry – before working for Allied Irish Bank from offices in London and Dublin, and then as a consultant for Deloitte Touche.

Seven years ago, she was offered the opportunity to work with former Prime Minister and Sedgefield MP Tony Blair – who, of course, was one of the signatories of, and driving forces behind, the Good Friday Agreement.

“I got a call one day to say Tony Blair was looking for a chief operating officer, and would I be interested?,” says Judith. 

“I said, ‘well, of course’, and eight interviews later, I found myself sitting in front of 28 Tony Blair associates. 

“And then I facilitated in bringing all of his entities – commercial, political and charity – under one roof, to make the Tony Blair Institute. 

“I left in 2018, when the job was done. 

“That was my brief.

“It was a phenomenal time; exciting, really interesting, topical and working with really talented people. No two days were ever the same.

“There was a global view, a global perspective, global insights and diversity of thought. 

“He was thoroughly engaging, energised, and I loved every single day – absolutely loved it.

“I didn’t join as a Tony Blair fan. 

“I obviously appreciated his role in the Good Friday Agreement – which I did say to him.

“But that changed when I left.

“I left a fan because I saw him working up close; the statesman, the diplomat, the thinker. 

“The depth of his thinking was well ahead of his time. And still is.”

Judith’s post-Blair years saw her spend more time in the North East, where she continued to work as a freelance consultant and, in between regular work in London, fell in love with the area. 

And when she was house-bound near Gateshead by COVID-19 restrictions, Judith used the spare time to hone her interest in creating a device which would significantly reduce brain injuries. 

“Firstly, I had to understand the problem,” she says. 

“To know the problem is to know the solution. 

“I spent weeks working in research and, remember, I have been asking the question for 25 years.

“And the problem is rotational forces, not linear forces.

“Rotational forces come from angles causing the brain to rotate and damage cell tissue, whereas linear forces are straight line forces. 

“So, therefore, I needed to identify something that would reduce rotational forces. 

“What is in the market is mainly helmets and scrum caps. 

“Are they reducing linear impact or rotational impact? 

“A hard helmet works for skull protection, but increases the force to the brain, and a scrum cap works only 

for surface cuts, lacerations and cauliflower ears. 

“On the home page of the Rezon website, I deliberately chose six key points to set the record straight on brain injuries.

“Because it is about every head impact in every sport, not just heading a football.

“It’s about every brain injury, not just concussion.

“It’s about reducing rotational forces to the brain.

“It’s about CTE, caused by repetitive impacts to the head, not age-related dementia.

“It’s about everyone who plays sport, not just professionals.

“And it’s about protecting against brain injury, not managing it afterwards.”

Already the subject of scores of multi-million-dollar law suits involving the NFL and NHL, it is widely accepted there is an association between CTE and repetitive head trauma. 


Elsewhere, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning hooker Steve Thompson, former All Blacks prop Carl Hayman and ex-Wales captain Ryan Jones are among nine former professional and semi-professional players suing World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.

The group, all diagnosed with early-onset dementia and other irreversible neurological impairments, argue the sport’s governing bodies were negligent and failed to take reasonable action to protect players from permanent injury caused by repetitive concussive and sub-concussive blows. 

Unable to settle out of court, the case looks destined to go to trial.

Premier League stars Wayne Rooney and Raul Jimenez have famously worn headguards after returning from significant head injuries – a fractured skull in Wolves striker Jimenez’s case – but, unlike Rezon’s Halos, neither product is actually legal under CE rules in the UK.     

Judith started designing the Rezon head band at her kitchen table, moulding plasticine before creating a product with Yorkshire-based manufacturers.

She worked with leading global experts in biomechanics, neuroscience and medical leaders in the detection, diagnosis and provision of the latest treatments for conditions affecting the brain.

She says she started the clock when she first sat down at her laptop and started her research. 

“Do you know, it was exactly three years,” she says. 

“I did it just to see how long it would take.

“After months of research, I started off with designs and playing with materials.

“The biggest challenge was finding a manufacturer, but we worked together on design and sent it to Sheffield Hallam University for testing, which was very successful.

“When we sent it to Virginia Tech, we got a five-star rating.

“It’s a form of PPE, so requires European testing, and we got that last October.

“I have some frustration with people who talk about brain injury, but do not have a solution. 

“Now, I’m not saying our solution is THE solution, but talking about a problem does not make it go away or solve it. 

“Solving a problem is bringing something to the table to see whether it works.

“All I’m doing is giving people a choice to empower themselves. 

“It’s about protecting your performance, because the only performance you need comes from your brain.

“It is designed to reduce rotational forces and also reduces linear forces, and it does that through a layered construct, which means that when the force hits the band, nine layers inside move over each other, creating a zig-zag, so when they come through, the rotational forces are reduced by 61 per cent.

“It has a textured silicone grip, so it stays in place and fits every head shape and hairstyle, and it’s deliberately light, so there is zero distraction. 

“And the reason it doesn’t come to the top of your head is because there’s six to 13 per cent of overhead impacts across all sports and that overhead creates a linear, not a rotational, force.”

From the Rezon base at Annfield Plain, near Stanley, County Durham, Judith now faces her biggest challenge; convincing the sporting world her product can make a difference, and finding a balance which protects the sport and the player.

Participants and teams in sports across the UK, US, Hong Kong, Australia, Ireland, France and Germany have already started to wear the head band, including in Premier League and EFL academies, the Championship and rugby union’s Premiership. 

Uptake is promising in hockey, real tennis and women’s lacrosse too.

But Judith knows it won’t be easy. 

It is a complex and evolving subject, and the data is constantly being updated, sadly, in some cases, when it is too late. 

But the lawsuits are mounting up as more evidence of sports’ ignorance of the consequences of repeated sub- concussion injuries emerges. 

And, even as she watched England’s women clinch the Euros and hockey gold at the Commonwealth Games – not to mention the glut of medals for the Home Nations’ female athletes and sporting heroes – Judith can foresee an unwanted legacy from the successes.

“Fair play to every woman who’s made it possible; we now have half a million more women every week doing exercise than ten years ago, and the success of the Lionesses and the women’s hockey team will inspire young girls who can see they can do these things. 

“But women are the greater risk. 

“We’ve known for 20 years that there’s a difference between men and women and concussion, and yet everything is built and designed for an athletic man, which is crazy.” 

But she remains full of hope.

“MRI scans are getting more and more sophisticated, and will be able to see the brain in a way we’ve never seen before in people who are alive,” adds Judith. 

“Thirty years ago, people did not wear sunscreen, and 20 years ago, people didn’t have a carbon monoxide detector in the house. 

“Now those things are part and parcel of everyday life.

“Once people start to understand the risk, and particularly the risk to kids, attitudes will change. 

“I’m not looking at this in 2022; I’m in 2032.”