Sports Startup Success Story & Interview: KAV’s 3D Printed Helmets

About KAV

KAV, the original made-to-measure helmet brand and the pioneer in 3D printed hockey helmets, was founded in 2017 in Silicon Valley.
The sports startup is on a mission to protect people one head at a time using personalized technologies to create tailored helmets built precisely for each user’s head size and shape; making mass production of standard sizes a thing of the past.
The team at KAV has developed a seamless process using a blend of science and technology to personalize manufacturing at scale. They have developed software that allows them to enter each user’s head measurements into their machine learning algorithms to render a virtual version of the user’s head. Then, custom dimensions for each helmet are generated and sent to their 3D printers for production.
KAV has recently announced the launch of the KAV Bike Helmets leveraging the same software and manufacturing strategies used to create their popular KAV Hockey Helmets. Because each helmet is made to order, KAV is using Kickstarter to forecast demand and ramp up production.

Following the success of their Kickstarter campaign, which was fully funded within two hours of its launch, we reached out to Whitman Kwok, Founder and CEO, to learn about KAV’s backstory and his experience with launching a successful sports tech startup.

Q & A with Whitman Kwok, Founder & CEO of KAV

Ideastag: How did you come up with the idea? And how did you go from idea to inception?

Whitman Kwok: Pure necessity. The general backstory is on our site— hockey players suffer a ridiculous number of head injuries. And in the U.S. alone, there’s almost $80B spent on ER visits related to head injuries; that’s just the U.S and only for people who actually bother to go to the hospital.
There are only two root causes for this:
  1. People aren’t wearing helmets in the activities where they get injured
  2. The helmets they are wearing have room for improvement
When we studied the problem, we found that the top two reasons people don’t wear helmets are comfort and style, and of course, the most protective helmet is the one that fits. We centered our research on providing the best fitting helmets possible, and in doing so, we’re able to provide a helmet people want to wear and one that can protect them better than what’s traditionally available.

Ideastag: What steps did you take to validate your initial idea and collect feedback?

Whitman Kwok: It’s difficult to validate an idea for something people have no concrete experience with. It’s the reason why the iPhone or the Tesla were created in a vacuum without focus groups and surveys.
Fortunately for us, the value proposition was clear so the answers to the benefits were predictable.
  • Do you want a helmet that fits?
  • Would you like to protect your head better?
  • Would you like a helmet that is cool and aero? (For cycling)
No one is going to say no, but they also aren’t going to recognize the shortcomings in their existing equipment. In the early days, I just sat in the rink or the public locker rooms and watched people fuss with their hockey helmets. You could see people wince as they squeezed their helmets on or kids struggle with the straps. I’d see players get carried off the ice from various head injuries.
That was the norm, to get injured, to have a helmet that either wobbled around or had to be broken in over several months. So the short answer is that I always ask, but it’s more important to watch. The result isn’t always what people ask for, but it is what they need and desire.
We just built a prototype as quickly as possible so people could experience it for themselves. We are constantly iterating on everything we do. We’re a tech company where two of the three founders have worked in software.
Most everyone used 3D printing – the difference is that we use it to manufacture so we can make changes and push them into production in weeks instead of months. Our experience making a hockey helmet established one of our three core values: relentless improvement.

Ideastag: You are using Kickstarter to forecast demand for the Bike Helmet; how did you gauge the demand for your first launch, the Hockey Helmet?

Whitman Kwok: We did market research, collected early pre-orders, and systematically planned. COVID threw that all out the window, but the process was still important. We’re grateful that people continued to support us, that our team and loved ones are safe, and that at least some parts of the world are starting to get to the other side of [the] pandemic.

Ideastag: What are three things you’ve told yourself that kept you going during the lengthy product development phase?

Whitman Kwok: I’ll answer what in general kept me going and that’s simple:

  1. Our mission to accelerate the personalization of protection one head at a time. Knowing that people wanted to wear our helmets for how they feel and my knowing that the technology would protect them better.
  2. Our team. We have a great set of people who are masters of their respective crafts and are a hoot to work with.
  3. That we only needed to make it to tomorrow, and tomorrow would bring the next set of opportunities for us. Entrepreneurship is a war of attrition. The only time you fail is when you give up. The prior two points are necessary to differentiate between grit and insanity.

Ideastag: You have obviously had a very successful launch for the Bike Helmet. To what do you attribute this success?

Whitman Kwok: My team, a mission that we all rally around, and a healthy dollop of what the world would call, luck.

Ideastag: Do you believe the personalization of consumer goods has become the new standard?

Whitman Kwok: For goods and services that matter to the consumer, absolutely. Athletes are working harder than ever to shave fractions of a second off their time. The one or few sizes fits all mentality is antiquated.
In helmets, a 10-year-old kid and a massive NHL player have very different impact profiles and demands for their equipment. That’s an extreme example, but physics dictates completely different specifications for their respective gear. Personalization allows us to bring out the best in athletes and make them look great in the process.

Ideastag: Lastly, what advice would you give someone looking to launch an innovative product?

Whitman Kwok: Three things:
  1. Change the world for the better. The core business should make society better, even if it’s just a little bit.
  2. Do what you’re uniquely gifted to do. In doing so, the world has gained from your pursuit in a way that it would not otherwise benefit.
  3. Love your mission. It really doesn’t matter if you love the work or the product. All those are transient. As a founder, you’ll have to do 100 different things, so don’t get attached to the task at hand. The same is true of the product— technology and tastes change quickly. Love your mission and keep to your North Star. My darkest days are when the proverbial cloud has made me lose my way.

The Takeaway

“Entrepreneurship is a war of attrition. The only time you fail is when you give up.” – Whitman Kwok, Founder & CEO, KAV

“As a founder, you’ll have to do 100 different things, so don’t get attached to the task at hand. The same is true of the product— technology and tastes change quickly. Love your mission and keep to your North Star. My darkest days are when the proverbial cloud has made me lose my way.” – Whitman Kwok, Founder & CEO, KAV

We had to pull these quotes from our interview because we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Every successful business has a unique idea that helps it win in the marketplace. Our hope is to give you the best practices, tools, and inspiration to turn your ideas into action and create success stories of your own. Visit the Ideastag Learning Center for more.

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