Startup of the Week: Stylish Collapsible Bike Helmets That You’ll Actually Want to Wear
When Rachel Benyola started her clinical psychology doctoral program in 2010, she didn’t know she’d leave just two years later to quench an entrepreneurial itch.
Now at the end of 2016, the 28-year-old CEO is on her way to launching a spring 2017 Kickstarter campaign for her line of collapsible bike helmets under her lifestyle brand AnneeLondon.
When Philly’s bike share program, Indego, kicked off in early 2015, Benyola noticed that a lot of people weren’t wearing helmets. By this time she was already enrolled in an Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management MBA program at Drexel’s LeBow College of Business. She had identified a problem and her urge to apply her entrepreneurial skills to solve it led her to delve deep into the world of recreational cyclists.
“I’d talk to people who I knew biked to work every day without a helmet, and I’d ask them, ‘Why’?” Benyola said. And they had plenty of excuses: helmets clash with work attire; they’re bulky and uncomfortable; it’s awkward to walk into a bar with a helmet. She also dug up some startling statistics. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 818 bicyclists died on U.S. roads in 2015 and 45,000 bicyclists were injured in traffic that same year. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that in a majority of bicyclist deaths, the most serious injuries are to the head. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50 percent. But partly because cycling advocates have argued that helmet mandates deter people from riding, not one state in the country has a universal bike helmet law.
There’s no denying that bike culture is on the rise. Consumer cycling increased 48 percent in the last year and 68 percent in the last decade, with millennials representing the largest growing demographic of these commuter cyclists, the National League of American Cyclists found in 2015. With more commuters on two wheels, AnneeLondon is positioning itself to take a bite out of the bike merchandise market with its one-of-a-kind collapsible helmet.
Through Philadelphia Startup Leaders’ competitive 90-day accelerator boot camp, several rounds of designer hackathons and countless biker focus groups, Benyola’s collapsible bike helmet has evolved fast. Her very first prototype of the product was actually inflatable, but she quickly abandoned that idea. Now, the AnneeLondon helmet addresses safety, convenience and fashion concerns. The helmet is made of special foam used in military gear; it lasts longer than EPS, or Expanded Polystyrene foam, the material that’s common to most bike helmets. “Today’s average bike helmet has to be thrown away after just three years because EPS is sensitive to oxygen. It deteriorates even if you don’t get into an accident,” Benyola said.
As for convenience, the helmet collapses down to 25 percent of its original size and Benyola secured a patent for how it folds. And for those of you who want your helmet to match your striped tie or polka-dot dress, the helmet features fancy chin straps. This design is something Benyola says you can’t find with any other bike helmet, and she’s partnered with Philadelphia-based artists to create the straps. The helmet also features fabric on the outside and an LED light on the back, a design that Benyola says is appealing to both men and women.
Stylish cycling is apparently in, a possible extension of the athleisure trend that won’t go away anytime soon. Louis Vuitton’s parent company is in talks to buy the Italian company Pinarello, a prominent cycling brand, to spur to the convergence of cycling and fashion. The Bicycle Product Suppliers Association reported in 2014 that $3.3 billion is spent annually on cycling clothing and accessories. Currently, Benyola’s only competition for collapsible bike helmets exists in Europe in brands like Spain’s Closca and Italy’s Carrera. Helmets can cost consumers anywhere from $40 to $400. Benyola opted to price the helmets at $130. “We wanted to price ourselves competitively at the lower end and still remain in touch with our consumers’ needs.”
Annie Londonderry, the first woman to bicycle around the world in the 1890s in just 15 months, is Benyola’s inspiration for her lifestyle brand that also sells commuter cycling clothing. “She took a risk leaving her kids and children behind to show what she was capable of,” Benyola said, nodding to another mission of the company: get more women into commuter cycling.
After recently placing first in the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs pitch competition and second at Drexel’s Baiada Institute Business Plan Competition, the company is undergoing additional safety tests for the product and preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign in a few months. She also plans to manufacture the helmets right here in the Philadelphia region and graduate from Drexel in June 2017.
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