There’s a problem with bicycle helmets: Many people won’t wear them. They’re ugly and destroy hairstyles, the haters say.
Two Swedish industrial designers, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, have come up with a solution—make the helmet invisible. They’ve developed an air bag in a collar, which, in the event of an accident, deploys to envelop a bicyclist’s head. They’ve garnered enviable buzz, but this spring, as they expand distribution beyond Scandinavia across Europe, they’ll see whether that translates into sales. Hurdles include a high price: At $520, the device, called Hövding, is hundreds of dollars more expensive than top-of-the-line polystyrene foam helmets. They also face scepticism: Will it inﬂate when you need it?
Is it worth it to buy a single-use device that could be triggered by the kind of low-speed falls that often don’t cause injuries?
“The adaptation curve for such a unique product at this price point is not likely to be rapid,” bicycling industry consultant Gary Coffrin told Forbes. “I would worry about the burn rate of capital.”
The startup, based in Malmö, Sweden, and also called Hövding, has taken in $13 million in venture capital. Even with the helmet’s high price, Haupt says, they aren’t making money, yet. An electronics redesign is in the works to cut costs. They’re aiming for proﬁtability by the fall of 2014.
At the heart of the device is an algorithm. Haupt and Alstin started on the project seven years ago, staging thousands of accidents with stunt riders and dummies to collect data on movement patterns. Accelerometers and gyros track the wearer’s motion; when the algorithm senses a pattern consistent with an accident, it triggers a helium inﬂator. Initially, the goal was just to make a fashionable alternative to a helmet, but as they went through the EU safety- certiﬁcation process, Haupt says, they realised they had something better: “It really kicks the ass of traditional helmets when it comes to safety.” The Swedish insurance company Folksam found it performed at least three times better than 12 conventional helmets in a test for shock absorbency. It can handle multiple hits in one accident, Haupt says, and covers more of the head than a standard helmet.
Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute in Arlington, Virginia, warns of a ﬂaw: “If you hit something without going through the motions that set off their algorithm you’re going to be hurt, say, by an overhanging sign or a bus mirror.” Swart wants to see Hövding tested under America’s “tougher” safety standard; he doubts it would pass. He may get his wish: Haupt and Alstin have come to the US to meet with potential distributors and investors.
One surprising group has taken to Hövding: Epileptics, who sometimes use helmets to protect themselves from seizures. The company is also eyeing equestrians and skiers, for whom safety and looking your best go hand in hand.
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(This story appears in the 31 May, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)