Emily Brooke speaks fast. Make that very fast. The 31-year-old product designer and entrepreneur who was still a student when she came up with her pioneering laser bike light, Laserlight, sounds like a woman in a hurry.
In truth she has a fair bit to do. She is in the midst of designing a technological “brain” to control a laser, LED lights, Bluetooth and GPS for London’s new fleet of Santander bikes, as well as supplying light units to a number of New York City’s bicycle fleet. She also needs to recruit, and more than double, her current team of 12 as fast as she can.
Brooke founded her company Blaze to bring her bike light to market and now, thanks to the worldwide success of her invention, Blaze is having to expand. “It’s the hardest thing, finding new people, and the right people,” Brooke says with some frustration.
The Laserlight works like this: as you cycle at night a laser image of a green bicycle is projected onto the ground five metres in front of you. The picture is emitted from a bike-mounted LED and laser unit, powered by a dynamo (which creates electricity as it turns), that gives cyclists a bigger footprint on the road. Cars, lorries and coaches are provided with vital seconds of advance warning. According to findings by the Transport Research Laboratory, 79% of cycling accidents are caused by motor vehicles manoeuvring into an unseen cyclist pedalling in a straight line. Brooke felt that increasing cyclists’ visibility and pre-warning motorists would make a significant difference to safety.
The idea came to her when she was cycling herself. She initially crowdfunded £55,000 on Kickstarter in 2012 and raised more than £330,000 from venture capitalists including Richard Branson’s family in 2014, before funding hit £1m in 2015. Raising money on Kickstarter gave the business immediate international appeal: “We were shipping to over 50 countries on our first batch,” Brooke says, adding that the business now has customers in 65 countries and has tripled in size each year.
It’s a rapid rise for the young entrepreneur, who has just been awarded an MBE for services to the economy and transport. Contracts with public authorities in London and New York have also helped accelerate the company’s growth. “I spoke to TfL really early on – it was too early though – they needed to see a successful product,” Brooke admits. “A few months later Serco [which produces London’s bikes] went on our website and called us, and we had a meeting. It just went from there. Then New York saw London.”
Her team has also “accidentally” become world experts in drawing power from dynamos. This is shared between the Laserlight and other technology on the bike, which continues to evolve. One product planned for the next generation of city bikes collects GPS data from the bike and transfers information to a collection point via Bluetooth. This will encourage owners to service and repair their bikes faster – another vital component of cyclist safety.
Brooke says deciphering what motivates big customers has been key to securing their business – and it was that feature in particular that helped Blaze do a deal with Serco in London. “With Serco, our tech could help them with understanding when bikes needed maintenance; TFL wanted to encourage more people to get on the bikes and increase safety; while Santander wanted to be innovative,” she adds.
The rapid growth of the business hasn’t been without its challenges. The original laser used came from a Japanese company Brooke met in Taiwan and she had to negotiate hard for the rights to use the technology. Having done a deal at a price that worked, the laser manufacturer reneged a week before the Laserlight went into production. “We got an email renegotiating the price to double,” Brooke recalls. “It would have made it completely unaffordable.” She spent what had been meant to be a holiday on her phone and computer, trying to find a solution. “My attitude was ‘we are going to find a way around this,’” she says. In the end, the company agreed to honour the price for the first order, and they have since found another supplier.
The bike accessories industry itself hasalso been a hard market to break into. “It’s quite an old school market and an old boys’ club really,” she says. One supplier even mistook her for her designer’s wife on their first meeting. But after years of operating on the fly in various co-working spaces, Blaze has just moved into its own Shoreditch office with an adjoining studio. “It feels more established now, much more relaxed,” says Brooke. She says her MBE was “a massive shock and a huge honour” and evidently feels a touch embarrassed about it, comparing her short time in the industry with those who have dedicated their careers to improving public transport. “But it’s not just for being an entrepreneur,” she says of the award. “I believe the main part of it is for building a product that keeps hundreds and thousands of people safe.”
She adds: “What’s going to make the biggest difference is more people on bikes. Anything that lowers the barriers to people’s willingness to cycle is a good thing.”
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