As cyclists, we ride for all manner of reasons. For some, it’s a chance to inflict pain and suffering in the pursuit of self-improvement; for others, the weekly group ride is time to catch up with friends, legs gently turning while putting the world to rights. For many, however, time on two wheels offers an opportunity to breathe. To think.
Jamie Cook’s ride from University College London to the student boat club in Chiswick gave the Mechanical Engineering undergraduate the chance to exercise his mind beyond the confines of the lecture hall, before putting his body through the mill as an international rower.
It was on the bike that Cook pedaled upon the genesis for Hexo, the revolutionary helmet brand launched at this week’s Rouleur Classic. Cook had been challenged by his professor, the renowned material scientist Mark Miodownik, to take an everyday item from real world and set about improving it.
“It was pretty knackering but I loved it,” says Cook of the three to four hours he’d put in the saddle each day. “I love being out on my bike, it’s the best time to think, to lose grip on reality a little and consider things properly. It’s no coincidence I threw myself into this project and I was spending so much time on the bike.”
Cook hopes to rewrite a rule book that has remained largely unchanged since Bell released the first commercially successful EPS (expanded polystyrene) helmet, the Biker, in 1975. The core material used in today’s helmets, 43 years later, is almost identical, Cook says. His fledgling company will offer the world’s first custom-made helmet; 3D-printed after scanning each customer’s head and using a honeycomb structure – not EPS – to double the efficiency of energy absorption.
“Back in the ‘60s, EPS foam was originally used as packing material,” says Cook. “It’s designed for a flat surface with a constant contact area, but it’s massively limited as to how much energy absorption can be achieved. It’s only about 35 per cent efficient.”
Cook admits his undergraduate project started with ‘some bonkers ideas’, whittled down by time crunching numbers in the lab and thinking creatively on the bike, but his thesis was eventually awarded the highest mark in his year. Cook went on to earn a PhD place at Oxford University – but to study tidal energy. The thought of competing in the University Boat Race was ‘super-exciting’, he says. Tidal energy? Not so much.
“When I arrived at Oxford I told them I didn’t want to study tidal energy. I told them I wanted to carry on with bicycle helmet design. They thought I was mad but I was really passionate about it. I found two other professors to work with – one in impact mechanics and the other in computational brain mechanics – and they took me on. I spent three years trying to figure out – and prove – why a honeycomb structure is better than foam.”
During his time at Oxford, Cook developed the algorithms and patents required for the helmet’s 3,000-layer structure – and competed three times for the Dark Blues in the University Boat Race, winning twice. Now he has formed Hexo, boosted by £1.4 million in seed-stage funding. Investors include two professional cyclists and some of the early backers of Brompton and Rapha, according to Hexo’s co-founder, Georgie Smithwick.
Cook has built an automated process that, following a ten-second scan of the head using an iPhone facial recognition camera, creates a custom helmet design sent to a 3D printer. “That creates a completely unique helmet, with an optimised energy absorbing structure for your head,” says Cook. “It’s much safer and fits perfectly.”
Hexo will launch as a premium offering, with each lid likely to cost between £350 and £400, but Smithwick says the helmet will also offer significant benefits beyond improved safety and fit. “It can be lighter because we are cutting out the weight of polystyrene foam,” she says, “and far better ventilated as the helmet acts as a heat sink, whereas foam is an insulator.”
Hexo’s helmet will also be made from 100 per cent renewable materials (EPS is derived from crude oil), while the firm is working with TotalSim, a Computational Fluid Dynamics company that has partnered with British Cycling through the past two Olympic cycles. “We are creating an outer shell to offer ideal aerodynamic flow while still giving plenty of ventilation and not looking ridiculous,” says Cook.
Cook’s ambition is to make Hexo helmets both affordable and relevant beyond performed-focused riders or the most safety-conscious cyclists. The demand is there, adds Smithwick, with more than 2,000 cyclists signed up to Hexo’s waiting list after a nationwide tour of sportives and trade shows to conduct consumer focus groups and gauge the market.
“There’s been so much interest, it’s ridiculous,” she says. “Right now, we have a premium product and we are tied to that because of the initial market realities of manufacturing. It’s a challenging thing to do because it’s a world first but we want to become a product that anyone can buy, including families. There’s huge interest from families.”
3D printing remains an emerging technology in terms of large-scale manufacturing but is ‘on a huge rise, with a long-term push’ across industry, according to Cook. As the technology develops and the company is able to invest in its own equipment and negotiate lower material costs, he hopes to fully realise Hexo’s potential as a ‘game-changer’ in helmet design. Ultimately, however, despite the commercial ambitions of Hexo, two words remain at the heart of the conversation – safety and innovation.
“We need to be totally relentless in proving innovation,” says Cook. “That’s the key difference with what we are trying to do. We’re obsessed with improving safety and performance not just through product designers or marketing, but science and technology. We’re working on such a complicated problem and such a complex part of the human body – that’s the only way to do it.”