Engineering a Soft Landing
An up-close glimpse of a motorcycle crash inspired Kenji Takeuchi's $1.5 million line of airbag-equipped jackets.
(Business 2.0) – The Seemingly Unsolvable Problem: Kenji Takeuchi used to drive his car every morning to Mugen Denko, the electrical services company he founded in Nagoya, Japan. One day in 1994, he witnessed a motorcycle accident along the way: The rider flew into the air and landed hard on the ground. Questions flooded Takeuchi's brain: "What if he has a family? How will his wife or girlfriend feel?" And then the one that would preoccupy him for the next decade: "How can I protect someone in a motorcycle crash?"
The Great "Aha!": An airbag on the motorcycle wouldn't do. After all, riders usually fall far from their bikes in a crash. Takeuchi learned that upper-body impacts cause 90 percent of fatalities and serious injuries in traffic accidents, so he thought about sewing an airbag into a motorcycle jacket. But how to make it inflate before the rider hits the pavement?
While he was pondering that challenge, a friend invited him to go scuba diving. Takeuchi declined, but he noticed his friend's unusual vest. It had a key ring that, when pulled, would cause an emergency buoy to inflate and rise to the surface.
Takeuchi's company built its first prototype jacket in 1996. Like eventual production versions, it had an airbag inside that inflated automatically when a pin connecting the jacket to the bike was forcefully pulled from its socket. (A one-touch release button allows riders to get off their bikes without inflating the bags.) But when Takeuchi took his invention to motorcycle shows in Tokyo and Osaka, bike manufacturers shunned him. "They thought the jacket would remind people that riding a motorcycle was dangerous," he says.
The Payoff: Undeterred, Takeuchi began selling the jackets in Japan in 1999 under the name Eggparka; in 2001 he relaunched the brand as Hit-Air. Today, Mugen Denko sells 16 styles of airbag-equipped motorcycle jackets and vests for about $270 apiece in Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America. (Product liability laws have been an obstacle in the United States.) In 2003 the police department of Japan's Ibaragi Prefecture adopted Hit-Air vests for its motorcycle force, and Brazilian motorcyclist Jean De Azevedo, who finished seventh in the 2005 Paris-Dakar Rally, had a Hit-Air jacket custom-made for the race.
Total revenues from Hit-Air products reached about $1.5 million in 2005, and Takeuchi says his interest in safety products hasn't let up: He's currently working on extra protection for people on bicycles, skis, and skates, as well as for medical rescue personnel. But he's proudest of the testimonials he's received from Hit-Air buyers. As one happy Japanese customer reports, "I should be dead."