When Breakthrough magazine spoke to Zona’s CEO, John Hale, he was in the midst of a whirlwind of media attention around his innovative product, designed to save motorcyclists lives. News of his product had been published in the previous week’s New Scientist, and it was also featured in the high profile motorcycling publication, Motorcycle News. So it was evident there was a lot of interest in what John was doing. But it was far from a new idea as Breakthrough found out.
Back in 2003, when John was living on the south coast of England, he commuted to work from West Sussex through to Hampshire. An experienced motorcycle rider, John still found his journey along the M27 motorway to be a challenge. A critical issue was rearward visibility. In a congested motorway environment, this is particularly critical, but John's ability to focus on what was happening behind him was hampered by issues with mirrors vibrating and his body obscuring the view. It was an age-old problem, faced by many motorcyclists. But after several close calls, he became determined to find a solution.
After one particularly close call, John was having coffee with a colleague, Mark, and discussing the issue. He explained: "Initially I wasn't thinking of it as a business idea, my words at the time were 'I just want something to put on my bike and if its any good we might be able to sell a couple as well'. Mark, who had a background in physics, agreed to take the idea away and see what he could come up with."
John had some key criteria. "I didn't want to change anything that I already did," he said. "I didn't want to have to replace any of my existing equipment or clothing, and it had to be entirely practical, easy to use and should not be a restraining factor in any way - it had to enhance my riding experience."
What John needed was a way to see what was going on behind him without compromising his forward vision. His outline concept was for a rear facing camera that had its images projected onto a screen fitted inside the riders existing helmet which could be viewed in the periphery of their vision. This approach would give an unobstructed view while incorporating image stabilisation would overcome the issues with vibration.
John's colleague wasn't a motorcyclist, and while the initial ideas were a good starting point, they didn't solve the entire issue. Going away with further feedback based on John's experience, the ideas were developed until a concept was reached that they felt was workable. Their attentions then turned to researching the idea, testing and gathering data - understanding the physics involved and the human elements.
This work enabled John and his colleague to fine-tune the idea until they had what they felt was a well thought out solution. And it was around this time that the pair started to realise they may well have a product that had real potential. Unfortunately, their optimism was soon to take a significant blow.
The first issue to be encountered was that display technology wasn't as advanced as it needed it to be. "There were two key issues," John continued. "The size of the display couldn't be brought down small enough for our requirements and also the costs would have been prohibitive."
John and Mark both had some experience of bringing new products to market and the costs that can be involved, and with these considerations, alongside the excessive component costs, the pair were not confident that they could make their project financially viable. The idea simply wasn't a practical solution, certainly from a commercial perspective, and so it was put on the back burner.
It was six years before the project would surface again. Both John and Mark had been watching the sector and knew that the issues with rearward visibility remained. By this time John was based in the North East and, by chance, he became aware of an EU-backed initiative called JEREMIE (Joint European Resources for Micro to Medium Enterprises). JEREMIE provided investment funding to SMEs and gave John and Mark an opportunity to fund their proof of concept and prototyping work, and move the project to the next stage.
At the same time, further investigations showed that display technology had improved and both the size and cost of the components needed were much more realistic.
What wasn't available, however, were the optics needed to allow a rider to focus on a screen inside their helmet, in extremely close proximity to their eyes. Teaming up with a University that had a specialist optics division, it was hoped that they could develop a solution that met the project requirements. Disappointingly, the partnership didn't meet expectations. It ran on for two years longer than intended and the final result simply wasn't fit for purpose.
This outcome was another blow for the project. The funding was running low, and so the pair had to find other sources of paid work to support themselves while allowing the project to keep ticking over. And they still had to find an alternative solution to their optics challenge. "It was frustrating," said John. "We had built up a lot of momentum, and we lost that as the project was forced to slow again."
Thankfully, by 2015 the pair had overcome the barrier created by the optical requirements. Fired up by their progress John started to work on raising finance to move the project to its next stage - taking the product into production. In early 2016 the process accelerated as the first investors came on board. John then spent the rest of 2016 focussed wholly on identifying and engaging additional investors.
That work all paid off, and by the end of the year, they had met their investment target - entirely from individual investors. The most high profile of which was Carl 'Foggy' Fogarty, the most successful World Superbike racer of all time. Carl wasn't involved in the project as just a celebrity endorsement, he had a genuine interest in the concept and provided a wealth of valuable input.
Even at this stage with all the support they had gained, John knew it wasn't going to be easy. Other companies had launched rear view camera systems for motorcyclists and failed. But John was confident he knew why. They all had a major flaw; they required you to use their helmets.
Right back in the early days of the project, John had seen this, and it was why his initial criteria included a minimal change in rider equipment - the development of a retrofit solution. Helmets are a significant consideration for the majority of riders. They are a critical safety element, and a good fit is essential. John realised that asking someone to compromise, even for the benefits that improved rear visibility can offer, was going to be nigh on impossible.
Bringing us back up to date, John and the team are working with a UK based manufacturing partner to get the product ready for shipping to customers in the summer of this year. They have shown the Zona system at several exhibitions this year. The reaction has been extremely positive, and they have hundreds of advance orders as a result. And of course, there has been the positive response in the press that John was handling when we caught up with him.
So, while having to wait to realise the Zona concept was not an ideal scenario, the product has a far greater chance of success today than it would have had in 2005. It would not have worked at the price point John and Mark needed to sell it at then. It would not have been as effective or user-friendly as the evolved technology means it can be today. And Foggy wouldn't have been able to get involved, as he was busy running a team in the World Superbike Championships.
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