Helping others through entrepreneurship

When Nate Saam was growing up he never expected to go to college, let alone a university where he would gain a business degree capable of launching him toward a career in entrepreneurship. Navigating an unstable home life, Nate moved 10 to 15 times before turning 18 and struggled to graduate high school.

“My vision was survival, how do I get through this,” he said.

But his mother’s gift of a mountain bike when he was 15 gave him an escape from the chaos.

“All your worries just kind of melt away and you start to realize that you’re living in that moment and in that moment alone,” he said.

Nate Saam with bike
Nate Saam stands with his bike while riding trails at Hall Ranch in Lyons, Colorado. “Everyone always says that when I’m mountain biking I’m probably the happiest person in the world,” said Nate.

An instant that changed everything

One day Nate was at the 42-acre Valmont Bike Park in Boulder, where massive dirt jumps send riders soaring into the air and down into slalom courses and narrow singletrack. Flying down trails and maneuvering between craggy rocks doesn’t give you enough time to worry about things to be done at work or overflowing to do lists – it takes complete focus.

“It was just a simple freak accident,” he said.

Riding on top of a tall platform, Nate misjudged where his back tire was and caught a log, flipping him off his bike. Spiraling 15 feet to the ground his head crashed into a wooden board.

The styrofoam and polycarbonate helmet he was wearing buckled under the impact, fracturing as the energy from the fall concentrated into a small area. In an instant the force burst through the helmet, thundering against his skull and jolting his brain.

“It was a square hit,” Nate said. “I remember sailing, but I don’t remember the impact.”

When he came to he was in the hospital, beside his wife, asking where his bike was, who he was riding with, and if his bike had come to the hospital with him. Then he started over, asking who he was riding with, where his bike was…

“I kept calling my friends to ask them if they were going to come hang out with me as I’ve got this IV drip in my arm,” he recalled.

It wasn’t Nate’s first concussion, but it was his worst.

Nate looks at the damage to one of his helmets inside his office at Innosphere, a nonprofit incubator in Fort Collins focused on supporting entrepreneurs. Even small impacts on standard helmets can compromise their structural integrity and lead to significant failures if used again.

“You can lose consciousness, sometimes you don’t, sometimes you’ll just see stars.”

One time after a blow to the head he was being evaluated by an EMT who asked him if he could remember his name.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘My name is Robert Paulson’ and he just started laughing,” said Nate, referencing the famous Fight Club scene. “If I’ve got my humor and can think, then I’ll say that.”

But the Valmont accident didn’t leave him so lighthearted. Soon after the crash he began experiencing such severe migraines that he thought he was having a brain aneurysm, unsure what was happening. Eventually he found out the pain was an aftershock of the traumatic brain injury. Mood swings followed, disrupting his daily life.

“It changes the chemical balance in your brain,” said Nate, who has had to train out stutters and emotional swings brought on by the fall.

Even after the trauma biking had inflicted on him the trail was still his place of solace.

“I can’t let that stop me… I have to keep doing it because it’s part of what makes me me.”

A new beginning

Handing out high fives to passing riders and revelling in the shared experience became his treatment – his bike became his medicine.

“Everyone always says that when I’m mountain biking I’m probably the happiest person in the world,” said Nate.

But off the trail things weren’t quite as cheery.

Nate fell into a string of jobs that weren’t fulfilling. After serving as a highly trained satellite technician in the Marines the challenge wasn’t the same and his mind wandered toward pursuing an education. He eventually began touring colleges in the area.

Nate Saam and his wife, Jennifer
Nate and his wife, Jennifer, at their home in Longmont, Colorado.

“I wasn’t looking for someone to talk at me, I was looking for professors to engage and talk with me… that’s what made CSU a good fit.”

Walking onto campus as an outsider, it didn’t take long for him to feel welcome.

“I felt at home, I didn’t feel out of place,” Nate said. “I’m married, got a house and a dog, I’ve been around the world twice, I’ve gone into combat zones, I wasn’t looking for the standard education.”

In the College of Business he was met by educators who pushed him, and he pushed back, eager to understand how they approached solving problems.

In one of the first classes he took, Introduction to Entrepreneurship, Dawn DeTienne had her class start idea notebooks, where students brainstormed and developed unique business ideas.

“She’s absolutely phenomenal,” Nate said. “She’s all about the entrepreneurial spirit and really sparking that.”

Dawn DeTienne talks to students
Dawn DeTienne talks with students in the College of Business.

One of the concepts he jotted down was to build the most environmentally friendly helmet possible. However, after experimenting with impact by testing various materials and composites, Nate became fascinated by how differently they behaved against strikes like the one that had sent him to the emergency room.

His focus soon shifted toward how he could best protect people who had similar passions to his own.

“We’re going faster than we ever have before, we’re jumping higher, we’re going further, and I don’t want to slow down that progression, but I want to help people maintain safety,” Nate said.

Holed up in his garage, Nate and his brother got to work, layering various materials together and binding them with resin over their first mold, a Pyrex bowl. The rigid casing came out so sturdy it withstood being run over by a car and deflected curious jabs with a knife.

Excited, and with his composite bowl and a hammer in hand, Nate headed to College of Business to show off how tough the composite was.

Handing it to the director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship, Nate prompted her to hit it with the hammer.

After a couple blows, “she’s like, ‘That’s super cool,’ and I’m like, ‘I want to make a helmet out of this.’”

The response was simple: OK.

Clockwise from top left: Prototype helmets sit out in Nate's garage, where he designed his original composite; Nate dons a respirator while pouring the resin for his composite; the framed patent for Nate's helmet is on display in his office; Nate pours resin into the mold for his composite helmets.

Coming full circle

Nate continued to refine his design, learning more about how the tough shell could better distribute force and soften a serious hit. He looked to nature for inspiration, studying the way the skull works to protect us: a rigid form, with joints that give at certain points, surrounding viscoelastic fluid that the brain is suspended in to lessen concussive shocks.

Collegiate Challenges student pitch competitor
Students pitch their business ideas to judges during the Collegiate Challenge competition hosted by the Institute for Entrepreneurship, vying for a $20,000 grand prize.

Working with mentors and experts who had gotten their start in licensing, and talking with lawyers to help with business formation, Nate soon had the skills to found his helmet company. He began competing in business pitch competitions at CSU and around the state, opening up networking opportunities and connecting with potential investors.

“It has to be about more than just the money. It has to be about the goal,” Nate said. “Because you’ll work harder for longer periods of time.”

What started off as Umbo Helmets morphed into Change Composites and now the company has pivoted from designing a helmet from the ground up to incorporating its technology into other products, greatly widening the scope of its impact.

For Nate, protection is a core value, stemming from his rough and tumble childhood and time spent in difficult neighborhoods.

The College of Business amplified his drive, enabling Nate to make life better for others, and support himself and his family while doing it.

“Whether it be bikes or first responders, any of these other industries, it’s really about helping people and saving their lives.”

Shortly after graduating, Nate submitted his paperwork to the College of Business Venture Accelerator and was accepted into the 16-week program aimed at developing sensible student businesses.