Protective gear with attitude

Harry Cole's business started as a final-year project for his industrial design studies. Seven years on Respro, the company that grew out of his idea for anti-pollution cycling masks, is exporting all over the world and supplying a growing range of related products.

The workforce remains small and Mr Cole is reluctant to discuss financial details of the company that literally started in the front room of his Brixton home. But Respro's distinctive "urban survival" masks and reflective clothing are popular among both cyclists and motorcyclists.

Like most good ideas, this was born from experience. Mr Cole was a motorcyclist who regularly rode across London to college, breathing in more than his fair share of exhaust fumes. Protective masks were available, but he thought he could do better.

Knowing that rival products were often ineffective as well as flimsy and uncomfortable, he researched the constituents of pollution and realised that to be effective a mask had to deal with a variety of pollutants.

The solution was found at the Defence Research Establishment with a filtration system first developed for chemical and biological warfare. Comfort and strength came by making the housing of neoprene, a material more usually associated with diving suits, giving the required close fit while not being too cumbersome.

But Mr Cole, as an industrial designer, is aware of the need for style. Even at a time when people are aware of the dangers of pollution, they will not wear protective equipment if they do not like the look of it.

Likewise, reflective clothing has been inclined - as he puts it - to make its wearer "look like a highway worker". So he has come up with items he thinks people will want to wear - protective gear with attitude, say. The stickers, belts and waistcoats made from 3M's Scotchlite material carry over the bold designs and slogans used on the masks.

"It's style as well as function," says Mr Cole, who says that he is determined to work with the end-user in mind though the designs and slogans are a key part of his marketing strategy.

With a wide range of masks - including some for use in the country where pollen allergies can cause great discomfort for some - and other products now available, Mr Cole is aware that his global market is highly segmented. Sales are split equally between cyclists and motorcyclists, and different markets have different requirements.

For instance, the United States is more of an allergy market, while other countries to which he exports, such as Japan and Indonesia, are more likely to be pollution-led. "Different countries buy the products for different reasons," he says.

Mr Cole keeps tight control over an operation he describes as "small, neat, tidy and as efficient as we can be". Early on, when he won a technology award sponsored by NatWest and BP, he set about obtaining worldwide patent protection.

And, though this caution did create an early setback when one supplier was unable to meet demand, he has taken care to concentrate on his strengths - design, marketing and packaging - which he sees as the key to success. He keeps a close eye on distribution, ensuring that products go to specialist retailers where customers are willing to pay for quality, but he leaves manufacturing to third parties.

And, determined not to be "a cottage industry selling one product", he always looks for new opportunities. Having quickly reached the point where 70 per cent of sales come from overseas, he is concentrating on widening his product portfolio rather than finding new markets.

On top of the X-treme Sports and Urban masks, there are now the cowboy- syle Bandit masks, plus special visors, courier bags and various styles of reflective equipment. There is a collection of clothing aimed at those dedicated to two-wheeled transport. Revisions and new items are constantly appearing.

The complexity of some of the masks - different filters for different conditions, and the like - might seem to take matters a bit far for a product many people will buy for style reasons more than anything else. But Mr Cole maintains that his business is first and foremost about protection. People buy reflective clothing because they do not want to get knocked off, he says. If the masks did not work he and his handful of colleagues would have been out of business long ago.

"It's a growth market, and there's still a lot of potential. We want to be there in the right place, at the head of the game," says Mr Cole.

q Respro equipment can be bought via mail order on 0171-721 7300.

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg