This interview was first conducted in August 2019, but will be of interest to a lot of you now. The founder of one of the most successful companies in action sports, Dr. Chris Leatt, discusses the path that has led Leatt to produce neck braces, helmets, gear and effectively every bit of protective gear that a rider could possibly want. There were plenty of intriguing points to touch on, as there always is with neck braces.
MX Vice: Let’s go back to your start. In the presentation yesterday, there was one interesting thing that really stood out to me. You mentioned that when you said you wanted to start motocross, your dad took you down to a spinal clinic or something to put the fright in you a little bit. Go into that and how you got into the sport. Give us some of your background.
Dr. Chris Leatt: Thanks. So, [I am] medically trained and have been passionate about motorcycles pretty much my whole life. The coming together of those two elements is what produced the brace, after a very significant incident. Going back, I think my dad had a vision that this was the way my life was going to go. At the age of fifteen, my parents were taking the family to the ‘States to go to Disney World. Although I was fairly excited about the trip, I’d just been to watch some short-circuit racing near my hometown in Cape Town.
I absolutely fell in love with it. Helped a friend of mine who was racing in the pits a bit and entered the mechanic’s race on his motorcycle. That was it. I was 100% hooked. I went to my dad – who is quite a conservative guy and not really into motorsports – and I said, “Is there any chance I could take the money for the trip and spend it on a motorbike?” Well, my father and my mother looked with sighs of consternation.
They eventually agreed that if I do a month in the spinal unit and saw what happened to people who were silly enough to ride motorcycles, I’d lose my passion and that would be that. Well, it didn’t happen. I did my month in the spinal unit. I found it interesting and it didn’t deter me at all. I guess that’s like most riders, really. Little did I know, later in my life, it was going to become a major topic. I bought a motorcycle and started racing at the age of sixteen.
When you got out of that spinal clinic and kind of told your parents that it had done the opposite of what they had planned, was there just this massive shake of the head and just disappointment? Even when you got to the point where you were like, “Right, this has actually now inspired me to start a business…” Obviously everyone has got belief in their children, but was there a bit like, “Are you sure? Is this a real business model?” When you started Leatt this wasn’t a thing, which is crazy to think of.
Well, kudos to my parents. They were more visionary than I anticipated at that stage. Kudos to them for going against their initial gut feeling saying this is not good for you, when actually potentially it is. Later in life, it’s become a massive part of my life. I didn’t really say to my parents, “I want to get into the neck-brace thing.” After having witnessed the accident where Alan Selby passed away and I tried to resuscitate him, it wasn’t a business idea. It was really about solving a problem.
The solution to the problem initially started as more of an academic exercise. It was looking at major injury vectors, mechanisms of causation, classification of neck injuries, talking to biomedical engineers, talking to spinal surgeons and my colleagues. Really, it wasn’t a business proposal. When I got to the point where I believed that there was something that could be developed… In fact, the first one I ever developed was fittingly around my father’s neck using plastic and foam. We have had a few chuckles since then about the way my life has changed.
Let’s go into a little bit more detail about that accident that you witnessed and the thing that kind of really inspired you to get into the industry you are now.
My son, who was four years at the time, had ridden a little 50 motorcycle two weeks before this particular event. He had a smile on his face. He tore off down the road and fell into a bush. We put him back on and then later somebody told me, “You really need to put a dog leash on a motorbike when the kid goes for a ride so you can curtail the speed the motorcycle travels at.” Anyway, he really loved his ride. He was with me when I went to an enduro event. I was post-calls. I’d been up the whole night. There was no way I could ride, but I went to watch this enduro event.
In the parking lot was a paramedic who I used to see in the casualty bringing in patients. We got to chatting. At that point in time, somebody came down the mountain and said, “Listen, Alan’s fallen off and he’s not looking good.” The paramedic said to me, “Will you come with?” Matthew, myself and the paramedic went up the mountain in a 4X4. We found Alan. It looked like he had fallen at a pretty low speed and gone over the front of his bike. I suspected he’d broken his neck. We had all the equipment to try to resuscitate him. Unfortunately, it was not successful.
I ended up having to tell his wife and his young family that he had passed away. I made sure that I got the autopsy report afterwards and, as I’d suspected, he’d broken his neck in two places. That’s really what the driving force was, my son riding. I said to myself, “I can’t put him in harm’s way like this. I need to come up with some sort of solution.” I thought that solution is something I’m just going to go out and find. The more I searched, the more I couldn’t believe that actually nobody had produced anything.
The only thing that was on the market were foam collars and, as we later showed in testing, the foam collars could actually be more dangerous than not wearing them at all. That was the start of the brace and the development of the concept of this alternative-load path. If you can get the helmet to touch the brace and unload the neck and reduce the force going through the neck, then you don’t get to the threshold where the injury actually occurs.
It’s interesting. When you came up with the idea that you wanted to solve this, you must have had so much confidence in your ability and your knowledge to actually fix the problem. You were putting yourself in the limelight and, at the end of the day, if something went wrong then you were going to be the one who gets the sh*t for it. You must have had so much confidence that the problem could be solved and, additionally, that you were the man to do it.
I think by the time we started making prototypes and this became potentially a business model, you have got to be confident. If you are not confident, it’s never going to happen. If you were doing this in the US and fear being sued for everything… We have been sued more than fifteen times so far. You probably would never do it. The barrier to entry is significant, but I really think it was my combination of being a doctor who saw a lot of trauma and somebody who was really passionate about motorcycling. I needed to put the two things together.
Sure, we were confident in the beginning. One of the things that I always said as the development process unfolded, and in-house and independent testing continued, was if there was ever any doubts that the brace was potentially harmful, we would take it off the market and we would just stop the whole project right there and then. I’d just go back to medicine. To this day, the products we develop… If I’m not prepared to put it on my child, it’s not going onto the market.
In that time from concept to launch, was there a time where you almost threw in the towel? You looked at maybe the cost or the way the experiments were going, and you were like, “Look. This isn’t going to work. I just need to turn my back on this.” Was Leatt almost not a thing?
There were certainly times. There are a lot of challenges one has got to go through whether that be cash flow, the business process or trying to find the right factory. I think we have been through them all with just about everything. We were producing braces in low volume in South Africa. We had staff problems, we had material problems and we had software integration problems. Really the biggest episode that sticks out in my mind was when we initially did some testing at the South African Bureau Standards, which is a test center that tests automotive products.
We tested the motorcycle brace on essentially a car-slid system, where the forces were being applied were the same size as what we were trying to generate, but they were in tension or compression. In other words, the brace is on the shoulder and you strap it down. You accelerate and then you stop it, but the neck actually elongates rather than compresses. We got some quite alarming results. We had to think very hard. We were lucky enough to have a professor who is head of biomechanical engineering at our local university who helped us wade through some of the results we were getting and make sense of them.
Then we realized we were actually doing the wrong test. When we started doing the right test and the most appropriate test, the results were there. The other thing about being in South Africa, and in developing a brace where there is no standard, was that we built all our own test equipment in the beginning. We became very familiar with ways in which we could produce the right forces in the neck in really novel ways and in cost-effective ways. I think if I’d done this not in South Africa but somewhere else it would have been a much more expensive exercise.
When you produced that first neck brace, did you feel like there was an opportunity for it to evolve? Did you feel like, at the time with the technology you had, that it was the neck brace and would always be the neck brace? Are you amazed with how far the technology has come and how far Leatt has even come with their neck braces?
For sure. In the beginning, it was about solving a problem. It was about producing a neck brace that you could wear comfortably and that produces the right test results. Little did I think at that time that there were going to be all the subsequent horizontal and vertical product line extensions that there are today. Probably within the first year or two of really starting to work on the neck brace, and looking at biomechanics which is not my primary field, I realized that actually there were quite a few other products that could potentially do with a good re-look, from knee braces to neck braces to helmets to all sorts of impact biomechanics.
I produced a list. I cannot remember what year I produced a list, but I jotted down a list of all the things that I’d like to do differently. I’m quite amazed. Fifteen years later I’m almost at the end of my list. Not to say that there is not future innovation coming, but we have innovated quite a few products. We have tens of patents to our name. There are some really exciting products that we have done subsequently. To this day I go to a foreign country, drive around and I see people wearing our apparel or drive past a shop and see the Leatt logo. I have to pinch myself. It’s quite bizarre.
Before we move onto that other apparel, do you feel like the industry has hit a bit of a ceiling with neck braces until maybe science evolves or new research comes out? Is it just going to be a case of tweaking things?
So, the thesis of the neck brace is this alternative load path technology. It’s a platform that unloads the neck and, as time has gone by, we have not found a way of making the neck brace better, in terms of its function and its primary function, which is to prevent neck injuries as well as prevent collarbone injuries and head injuries. Those are two added benefits to wearing a neck brace. I think if you look at a ceiling in terms of sales… I think that’s come about, because the early adopters have used it. The people who really believe in the product and have taken the time to understand the product are using it.
I think the next real step is homologation agencies and racing authorities are going to say, “Let’s produce a standard and once and for all say they either work or they don’t work.” I think there is now irrefutable evidence that they do work. The work that we have done and the work that other people have done, there is a study that’s just been published which is a very compelling scientific study. There’s the EMS action-sport study, which is a good clinical study where they have looked at almost 10,000 riders in almost ten years’ worth of crash data. When the data comes back saying you are 89% less likely to break your neck with a neck brace on, those kinds of figures are really difficult to ignore.
I think the next growth in the neck brace market is going to be adaptions of standards and the logical next steps thereafter. In terms of the technology itself evolving, we have a complex lab. We are constantly looking at ways of improving the brace and other products. I think, for the medium term, the neck brace will evolve in terms of fit, form and function rather than a radical departure from where it is now. They will be aesthetically more pleasing, more wearable and more integrable. I don’t think we are on the fringe of another breakthrough.
Obviously, Leatt was surviving very well as a neck-brace company. Everyone associated the name Leatt with the neck brace. Like you said, that was where your field of study was. Moving into other apparel like knee braces, helmets, gear and all of that stuff… Was that maybe more of a risk than even starting a neck-brace company in the first place?
Not knowing a huge amount about business in the beginning, which is where I was, and asking lots of people lots of questions, it was almost easy as I had a vision. I had a goal, and I was there to achieve it. When you start looking at other product categories, you have really got to do the math. Does this make sense? Should I enter this market segment? When we were just a neck-brace company, we were not a threat to other manufacturers. Now that we do head-to-toe, it’s more of a threat to other manufacturers. It really does change the business dynamics.
The knee brace for me is a really interesting product category. It did require a significant investment. Not only did it require a significant investment, but we know they don’t fit and that they are not comfortable… If they break, they can really kill you in terms of the product category and cost you a lot of money. This was in fact a risky product. We made some material choice errors in the beginning. Fortunately, we survived that with the subsequent evolutions of the knee brace. It’s just a fascinating product for me. It was a product that we had to do the math on to put it into that market segment.
Once again it’s a product I looked at and said, “Are motorcyclists riding with a knee brace because they have got an unstable knee from a previous injury or they just don’t want to have a knee injury? Is there no way we can make a good knee brace that is as effective as a dual-sided knee brace with no hinge on the inside?” That was my driving force. We worked with knee surgeons and looked on very complex knee biomechanics. The knee is actually a very complex joint.
We developed virtual pivot points in the C-frame knee brace that doesn’t have a joint in the middle and you can actually feel the motorcycle. Subsequently, the market still likes joints on both sides. We are in the happy position of being able to offer the market two solutions. One is innovative and different, and the other one is similar to what’s on the market in terms of other manufacturers.
Leatt is still a neck-brace company and that’s still the thing that most people associate it with, but do you foresee a time where maybe you are selling more gear or knee braces than neck braces? That must seem insane to you, because obviously that was not the plan to begin with at all. Can you see things maybe trending in that direction?
Absolutely. If you look at the percentage sales for the company of neck braces versus other product categories, in the beginning it was 100% neck braces. That percentage shrinks. Even though neck brace sales for us are actually increasing, as a percentage of our turnover and revenues it’s decreasing. Obviously, we are introducing new product categories, but the neck brace is still our flagship product. I think more than the fact that our neck brace is our flagship product, it’s really the ethos of the company. It’s engineering and safety first, and cool second. We would like to be cool, sure, and hopefully we are doing that with our apparel. The feedback is that it is cool, but we are primarily engineered for the science of the thrill. That’s what we’re all about.
I guess that’s the biggest difference between the two. Although, with gear, there are advances made with the technology to make it a bit safer, I don’t feel like that’s what people are shopping for. At the end of the day, they want something that looks cool. That’s maybe your priority with that. A neck brace is completely the opposite. People are looking at it going, “Well, does it to do this safety aspect correctly?” Although it goes on the same rider and they work in conjunction, they couldn’t be more different products… Even with strategies behind the scenes.
I completely agree. However, what is fascinating to us is if we want to re-jig sales and just refresh the market then you have got to come up with a different colour-way and different use of materials whilst making very sure that the performance of the brace, no matter what price point the brace is, performs in the same way. It’s still maintained. There is no doubt that a refresh of the brace and an upgrade in terms of aesthetics definitely helps generate sales. In the beginning it wasn’t like that. Now it is. I think Leatt has moved into a different product category, or a different level in terms of a company playing in this arena.
Another thing that stood out from your presentation is you said that one of the biggest influences on people not wearing neck braces is trainers. You said that if any trainer actually believes that, they should just go and speak to you. Have you actually had people do that? One person that pops out in my mind is Ryan Hughes, who is quite keen to get his opinion across. Has he ever actually spoken to you? Have you tried to reach out? Has there been one of these situations where you have actually fixed a problem?
So, in fact, yeah. Ryan Hughes is very outspoken. He has very strong opinions. Ryan and I have actually spoken on a few occasions. We have invited him to South Africa. We have invited him to come to the lab. I have spoken to him and I have said to him, “Let me try to change your mind and if at the end I cannot change your mind, because you are not convinced, then sure, hold an opinion.” For me, there are two folds of negativity about the brace. One is social media. Somebody gets on with no information whatsoever and just sparks a conversation saying it breaks collarbones. Well, actually, we know it doesn’t. It does the opposite.
It actually prevents collarbone injuries. All you need to do is put it out there and it is fact. Fake news today is a big thing. It just sort of perpetuates itself. The other thing is, unfortunately, the trainers with young athletes who are very impressionable. When a trainer says, “The neck brace is going to break your collarbone. You’re going to go slower. It’s going to restrict your mobility…” None of those things have to be true, but if the trainer says they are then they are to that rider. There is no doubt that trainers have had a huge impact on safety.
I really feel if your profession is to train somebody, you should inform yourself. I have spoken to Ryan. I have spoken to one or two others. I really encourage any trainer who has an opinion about neck braces to chat to me. It’s not an ego thing. It’s not a question of head-butting. It’s just a question of information. Information is power. Without information, how do you make an informed decision? How do you tell a young athlete to take a brace off? A little while later they fall off, break their neck and you say, “Maybe I didn’t say the right thing?” That’s a terrible situation to be in, I think.
I guess it is not one of the things where you just want to talk to them to get them to change their opinion. By talking to them, you could actually maybe learn something. They could say just a little thing that sparks something in your mind that goes, “Hey, maybe not next year, but maybe we could change this or do this differently.” Being someone who is interested in research and just constantly growing, there is more you can take from that as well. It’s not just a one-sided thing where you want these people to come across and you can go, “This is my neck brace. Like my neck brace. Look at all the great things it does.” There is so much to gain from conversations like that.
Absolutely. I pride myself from listening to everybody and then formulating an opinion, rather than going in dogmatically and saying, “This is what I believe and to hell with everybody else.” Interestingly enough, one of the comments from trainers is that you are going to fatigue more using a neck brace. Just because you are holding your head in a different position. Actually, there have been two or three studies done with myelography where they actually put sensors on the neck musculature during riding.
Guess what? There’s less muscle activity wearing a neck brace, so you are actually less likely to be fatigued. Once again, it’s something that started somewhere and has been perpetuated throughout the marketplace that neck braces in terms of rider and training and fatigue and head position is not a good thing. The facts actually show the opposite.
One thing I really want to get across is that neck braces don’t break collarbones. You touched on it, but let’s just go a bit more into the tests you have done and everything that you have found out. The fact is, neck braces don’t break collarbones. Full stop.
Absolutely. In fact, I’ll be bold enough to say that overall if you look at studies over many years and many riders neck braces prevent a certain percentage of collarbone injuries. How do you break your collarbone? You fall on the outstretched arm and it’s like a crumple zone, the collarbone. You would rather break your collarbone, which repairs by itself a lot quicker than if you had to break your shoulder. As the shoulder girdle, the collarbone is the logical component of your body structure to break. The body is very well-engineered. That’s the first way.
The second way is you fall on your shoulder. The third way is that your helmet rim strikes your collarbone, which drives it in and fractures it that way. If we look at somebody who falls off on the right-hand side, for example, and puts their outstretched arm on the right, they are likely to break their right collarbone. If they fall on their shoulder on the right, they are likely to break their right-hand collarbone. If they fall off without a neck brace on and break the opposite side, so they fall on their right shoulder and break the left collarbone, that is likely, because the head is forced to the left.
The brace is designed with a collarbone-relief area to sit around the collarbone and to shield the collarbone from the helmet rim, hence we see clinically in a large population study group that in fact you reduce that component of collarbone injuries and then overall collarbone injuries are actually less likely. If you are looking at an athlete whose livelihood depends on his ability to ride at the next event, why not do something that’s going to save your neck, save your collarbone, and by the way actually mitigate against head injuries? That is what the neck brace does too.
Final thing. This is a bit of a loaded question, but I like putting it to people in your position. I feel like this maybe gets across how real you are and how this is not just company PR. How about one thing you are exceptionally proud of, besides neck braces maybe, and something you maybe wish you had done differently? Just in general. Two things that stick out.
There are a lot of things that I would have done differently. A retrospect scope is a fantastic piece of equipment. I would have cut out years of development, but I think you have got to go through that process and all those iterations and make the mistakes. You grow as a person making those mistakes. I could certainly, sitting here today looking backwards, have done things differently, cut out time and done things a lot more efficiently.
What I’m really proud of is the approach towards looking at biomechanics, studying the research and coming up with a solution that makes sense for that particular injury dynamic and producing a physical product that is representative of that research and actually at the end of the day, ten years later, looking at the numbers, has really actually saved lives and kept people out of wheelchairs. For me, when I go to an event like this and I see people in wheelchairs, knowing that I’ve kept people out of wheelchairs gives me goosebumps and gets me up in the morning, as well as thinking about other products and other things to do.
Interview: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: Ray Archer