Author’s note: The Velocity Accelerator Program is hosting five companies for its winter 2014 cohort. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll bring you profiles of these startups. This is the third in the series.
The National Transportation and Safety Board says:
According to a study by Daimler-Benz, if passenger car drivers have a 0.5-second additional warning time, about 60 percent of rear-end collisions can be prevented. An extra second of warning time can prevent about 90 percent of rear-end collisions.
Motorcycles and manual transmission cars can come to a near stop without using their breaks by downshifting and engine braking. The problem? Vehicles behind the braking car or bike get no signal that they’re trailing a vehicle that’s slowing down.
GearBrake, a company currently in the Velocity Winter 2014 cohort, plans to market a safety device that is wired into the existing brake lights of manual transmission cars and motorcycles. GearBrake will cause the brake lights to flash as the vehicle decelerates, whether or not the driver or rider is braking.
Chris Bailey, founder of GearBrake, is a St. Xavier grad, like three-fourths of fellow Velocity cohort GroomHQ. But unlike GroomHQ, he’s a team unto himself.
That doesn’t mean he’s been going it alone.
“Beam Technologies (Alex Frommeyer and crew) has done all of my R&D work for the past four months, and they have been an extremely valuable contractor for GearBrake,” says Bailey. Beam Technologies is one of a growing number of hardware startups in Louisville and manufactures the Beam Brush, the app-enabled toothbrush. Beam has recently relocated from NuLu to Germantown.
GearBrake is the first hardware company ever at Velocity. And it’s a company that has already been put through the wringer several times.
Bailey and GearBrake placed first at the second Louisville 5Across competition in November 2013, and Bailey participated in the 10-week “Launch It” program
He cites “Launch It” as being an “awesome kickstarter for jumping into this program” because he’s already worked closely with the Business Model Canvas and the customer discovery model. In fact, during the Launch It program, he experienced his first pivot.
Originally his product was going to be a lighted licence plate frame that blinked faster as you braked harder. But during the customer discovery phase Launch It, he discovered that people just weren’t all that interested — even though he had solid safety research that spoke to response time and rear-end collisions.
In 2010, Bailey had been a motorcyclist for two years, but his riding came to a halt when he was involved in an accident. He was driving 40 MPH and a car pulled out in front of him. The driver hadn’t seen him, and the collision launched Bailey off of his bike and into the street.
“I stood up, and I just kept saying, ‘I’m alive.'”
Luckily the only injury Bailey sustained was some pretty brutal road rash, but when he tried to ride his bike after that, he says, “It just wasn’t fun any more.” He says he felt invisible to the drivers around him.
GearBrake wouldn’t have prevented his accident, but he says it “would have helped ease my mind a little. Made me feel less invisible.” But when he did customer discovery for GearBrake with bikers, he got seriously enthusiastic responses.
And it turns out bike shop owners are excited, too. Bailey thinks it’s going to be pretty easy to get some of the local vendors to stock the GearBrake.
“There’s more that can be done for automotive safety. And there’s more that can be done with IT,” says Bailey. He envisions someday being able to customize the signal through a phone app. He can also see this technology being repurposed for bicycles and other kinds of cars.
When I asked Bailey what the endgame is for GearBrake, I assumed he’d be looking for the company to be acquired by a larger manufacturer. That may not be off the table, but it wasn’t his response.
“I see GearBrake as the beginning product in a whole suite of smart safety products,” he says.
He’s “absolutely staying in Louisville.” Besides the fact that this is home, he says Louisville is ripe to become a true hub of manufacturing, “especially with all of the engineers that U of L is pounding out.”
Bailey graduated from the UPS/Metropolitan College program at the University of Louisville with a degree in marketing and management. The Metropolitan College program pays for most schooling costs of anyone who works third shift at Worldport.
Bailey finished his degree in five years and spent three of those years gaining management experience at UPS.
He then went on to join the family business, Bailey Tools and Supply, a company started by his grandfather in 1937. Bailey started out in sales and then moved up to purchasing and inventory, eventually becoming the VP of inventory.
Bailey says he comes from a long line of entrepreneurs. Both his mother and his father started their own companies, too.
Eventually Bailey moved on to Invensys, manufacturers of rail automation components, specifically railway crossings. That company was bought out by Sieman’s in May 2013.
While at Invensys Bailey began the Bellarmine Executive MBA program, which he’s slated to complete this summer.
Full-time job. MBA work. Startup planning.
“I had an amazing full-time job with a great paycheck,” Bailey says. So the decision to take the leap and start GearBrake full time was scary. “But my family has done it all their lives.”
He started financing GearBrake out of his personal savings, but one day while on a plane working on a business plan project for his MBA, he was seated next to a banker from First Harrison. They got to talking about Bailey’s visions, kept in touch, had lunch a few times, and eventually the banker reached out to Bailey and offered him a line of credit.
“First Harrison has really helped push this forward,” says Bailey.
Coming to Velocity, Bailey says, has been great because he now feels like “less of a one-man outfit.” The other companies in the cohort have been “pushing my comfort zone,” says Bailey. “Pushing me to market sooner.”
Now his guiding principal is “fail fast and fail cheap.”
But he doesn’t want to be a one-person outfit for much longer. “I’m searching for a technical co-founder that can help with ongoing development and manufacturing.”
In addition to Beam Technologies working on GearBrake’s R&D, local developer Aaron Bacon is working on the website and store. Bailey also has received support from the folks at LVL1.
Bailey wants to ship in spring, so he’ll start taking pre-orders this week. The device will be American-made and at least initially priced at $69.
Watch Bailey test GearBrake on his manual car as it drives from Louisville to Velocity: