Many pitch competitions award in-kind services and cash to startups, which often struggle to keep their heads above water financially. Hyde Sportswear, which on Wednesday was announced as the overall winner of the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, is itself in the business of helping people stay afloat—literally.
Milwaukee-based Hyde’s flagship product is Wingman, which co-founder Pat Hughes called “the world’s thinnest and most versatile life vest” during a presentation on Tuesday at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Madison.
Hughes, who was sporting one of the vests beneath his suit coat, said that when he was competing in his first triathlon, in 2012, a fellow competitor drowned.
“Preventable drownings continue to be a leading cause of death,” Hughes said.
The harrowing experience inspired Hughes and his co-founder Michael Fox to launch Hyde in 2013. Hughes said Wingman can be used by people participating in most “passive water activities,” a category that includes swimming, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding.
Hyde’s vest is slimmer than many of today’s best-selling life preservers, which Hughes said are made of foam or designed to be blown up using one’s breath or a pump. Wingman is also inflatable, but the process is different from other life jackets: The wearer pulls a ripcord, which causes a carbon-dioxide cartridge to fill the vest with air, Hughes said.
“The device inflates and gets your head above water instantly,” he said.
Wingman is reusable, and the refresh process is easier than packing a parachute—all you have to do is swap out a spent cartridge for a fresh one, Hughes said.
Because Wingman requires pulling a cord to function properly, it’s not ideal for water skiing or other aquatic sports where athletes move at breakneck speeds. The reason is because the risk is too great that, for instance, a water skier hits her head on a rock, rendering her unconscious and unable to inflate the vest.
Wingman, which can be pre-ordered for $180 on Hyde’s website, is patent-protected and has been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and Underwriters Laboratories, an independent safety science company that certifies various products. Hughes said he expects the first vests will ship in July.
ISPO, a German exhibition for sports equipment and apparel, recognized Wingman as one of its 2015-16 award winners.
In the water, many triathletes—especially those training for and competing in long-distance races such as Ironman—wear neoprene wetsuits, which provide better buoyancy than traditional swimsuits. Hughes said that currently, triathletes who wish to also wear Wingman must don the vests on top of their wetsuits. However, he says Hyde might develop a neoprene “wetsuit-type shirt” that would give swimmers access to the ripcord, and be worn over Wingman.
Hyde, along with the three other startups that took first place in their categories, were selected from 206 entries. The three category winners were:
—Lynx Biosciences (life sciences): Chorom Pak, president and founder of Madison-based Lynx, said the company is developing “predictive technologies to individualize cancer therapy.” Pak said that once a patient with multiple myeloma or another form of blood cancer relapses or becomes resistant to treatments, his or her therapy is often a trial and error process. Lynx is working to develop an assay that can determine which therapies will work best for each patient, in part by testing the therapeutic response of tumor cells derived from a biopsy.