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BLOG: Innovation puts Leicestershire business in pole position for cycle safety market

1 February 2023

George Fox is the founder of Hedkayse based in Market Harborough. He has a degree in product design and his passion for this innovative company and the potential applications of its products is infectious.   We caught up with George recently to talk about his (cycle safety) business journey.

The inspiration

The Hedkayse concept started in 2010 as a response to the ‘Boris bike’ scheme in London and the problems of carrying a cycle helmet on your commute. It was also born out of a very serious brain injury sustained by one of George’s close friends in a cycling accident. His conventional helmet failed to provide adequate protection.

George explains: “Normal bike helmets are not as tough as people think.  Every little knock they get when you’re carrying them around affects their performance. Also, the first polystyrene hard shell helmet was introduced in 1975 and hasn’t really changed since then so we asked ourselves why.

As cyclists and commuters, we thought if we were going to make a helmet it has to be robust, it needs to be multi-impact and you need to not look silly while you’re wearing it.  It should also be convenient and fit in your bag so that means folding.”

What is the core of your innovation?

“We realised that 98% of the world’s helmets are made of polystyrene which is actually quite a fragile material.  We needed to find an alternative and initially, we were thinking about some type of foam that would squish and then recover. We tried all types of foam, but they were all affected by temperature.  If you warm them up, they become floppy which is no good in terms of protecting your head. We went back to the drawing board and over three or four years did thousands of tests on the various groups of possibilities, formulating foam, combining different types, layering it, everything.

“Eventually we came up with our ‘secret formula’ that is giving us what we’re looking for in terms of performance and it’s resistant to temperature and it recovers after impact. You can drive a car over our cycle helmet (not with your head in it, obviously) and it will not break.”

By 2016 they had a product and successfully crowdfunded £130,000 for ‘the cycle helmet that doesn’t break’ specifically for inner city use.  In 2019 the helmet launched officially and was well received.

“We had good momentum building up and then Covid hit.  Fortunately, cycle helmets were categorised as an essential item because more people started cycling”. They used the months of the lockdown to manufacture pre-orders and move premises as well as keeping customers updated via regular videos.

Growth has continued after Covid with sale of the helmets up 300% on last year. “We have six employees and we’re expanding mainly because of going into the US. We’re selling 50-70 helmets a week to the US now.  By this time next year that’s going to be 200 helmets a week because we’re going in with all guns blazing” says George.

The company has also diversified into new markets such as the Inclusive and Adaptive sector for people with disabilities who may be vulnerable to falling or fitting. “Our helmet is the only helmet in the world that is certified legally as suitable for people with disabilities. A conventional helmet does not work effectively because people with disabilities who fall are not doing so at high speed so the foam inside a conventional bike helmet doesn’t compress as it would in a high-speed crash.  The energy of the knock just travels straight through that helmet to the person’s brain. Our helmet prevents that”.

Have you always been an innovative person or is this the first time you have spotted an opportunity to improve a product?

I’ve always worked in design, helping people come up with new ideas and that’s one of my strengths.  From a very early age, I would take things apart and be fascinated by how they were made.  I’m always looking at products and thinking how they could be better.  If you’re trained as an engineer or a designer, it ruins a lot of things for you!

What about the language of innovation?  When you were going through this journey, did you talk about ‘innovation’ or did you use other words?

“We didn’t talk about innovation, but we asked the question ‘why hasn’t this been done?’ because understanding why no one else had made a product that doesn’t break was crucial early on. Was it because it was too hard?  Or because if one helmet breaks, the company gets to sell another one?  Or didn’t the technology exist?  We did quite a lot of group research work trying to understand this and provide evidence.”

What do your two colleagues bring to the mix?

Andy Creak is a successful financial technologies person.  He’s very capable, he can see an opportunity and take it all the way through.  This was an opportunity but also an area he’d never worked in – physical products – and that’s where I came in.  Tony Walker (who is Andy’s best friend) is also from financial technologies and has a trading background so he’s very well connected.  So, the three of us combine vision, financial pragmatism and the skills to get things done.

And how big is your team overall?

We have five members of staff now. We usually recruit university graduates direct, so two Loughborough University graduates came on board last year. We’ve got another guy who is very clever, and we’ve got a making team that are local, and they love doing something different with us.

How was Rana the Business Adviser able to help you?

“Before I met Rana, I was always very sceptical of grants and assistance just because of the time and the paperwork involved.  As a small business, time is your most valuable asset.  I’ve got a 15 month old and it’s a 60 hour week minimum so I can’t afford to waste any time.

“Rana got in touch because we were at the Innovation Centre and I was honest with him, I said “if there’s something worth pursuing, please tell me, otherwise I haven’t got the time”. Rana himself has got good business experience so he brings a valuable perspective.  He was able to help us with ideas about how to expand our premises in a more cost-efficient way.”

In Part Two of this interview, we look at the future vision for Hedkayse and their three horizons.