Cleveland Startup Creates an Alternative to Reflective Running Gear

close up on bicyclists leg showing reflective safetyskin product Safety Skin lets runners shed their reflective vests in favor of a washable ‘reflective spread’

Safety Skin lets runners shed their reflective vests in favor of a washable ‘reflective spread’

For many athletes who train regularly, safety is a genuine concern. Most people run or bike before or after work, which often means they’re often out in the dark and need to be visible to drivers. Products like reflective vests can help make them visible, but people don’t like to feel the vests bouncing around. To make people comfortable and safe, John Kulbis, a competitive runner himself, founded Safety Skin in Cleveland to develop a product that cuts out the need for other reflective items.

“At Safety Skin, we’ve created the world’s first reflective spread that uses a deodorant stick-style applicator to create reflective marks right on your skin or apparel that are visible in any low-light scenario and easily removed with soap and water,” said Kulbis. “There’s a huge community of people running before and after work; 76 percent of athletes train during that time, in and out of low light. The goal was to create a product that was durable, skin-friendly and wouldn’t degrade.”

Kulbis has been thinking about Safety Skin and the problems the company wants to solve since 2010, when he was painting a house with a friend and leaned on a wall, which left a bright white strip of paint on his skin.

“I went out running that night and wondered if this white stripe of paint had any reflective qualities. Is it keeping me safe?” he said. “I got in the shower later and couldn’t get it off of my skin, so I thought, ‘What if we could make a wipe-on, wipe-off reflective?”

Safety Skin was born out of that “aha moment,” but did not become a company until five years later. Kulbis had pitched the concept to some companies who didn’t show interest and tabled the idea until 2015, when he decided to go out on his own, formulating Safety Skin on a double boiler in his kitchen using a deodorant stick. After trying latex, silicon and other methods, he found the perfect combination of hypoallergenic wax with reflective particles that doesn’t degrade with sweat. Now, he thinks Safety Skin offers something others don’t.

“People don’t think reflective vests are cool,” he said. “They’re not comfortable, they’re not fashionable and for more performance athletes they chafe and bounce and add wind resistance and drag. We asked, ‘How do we make safety more inclusive for everybody?’ So we developed something that’s more appealing and is incredibly affordable. It can be shared with family, friends or training partners and it’s also portable and TSA-friendly.”

Now that he has his product where he wants it, Kulbis is extremely confident in the appeal of Safety Skin. First and foremost is the safety element — U.S. pedestrian fatalities are at a 30-year high, and runners are more aware than ever of the need to stay safe during exercise. But the company is also gaining steam on the business side. This year, they participated in the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator, which helped them become an official member benefit partner of USA Cycling. They have patents in place in the U.S. and Europe, and are now working to raise $500,000 for marketing and product development, which Kulbis hopes will take them to the next level.

“We’re just not well known yet,” he said. “People use the product and like it — we estimate a repurchase rate of about 60 percent because once you start using it, there’s nothing quite like it. You don’t feel like you’re wearing anything; it’s just there. So we’re going to be pumping up marketing to support education so that customers know the product exists and will go into running stores asking for it. The accelerator helped us understand the importance of that and how to get this cycle into motion.”

Despite Safety Skin’s modest growth out of Kulbis’s northeast Ohio home, the company has sold more than 20,000 units of its flagship product. Flying from the momentum of the accelerator, they plan to expand their offerings and add other colors and products. As they continue to grow, Kulbis said he’s thankful to have built the company in Cleveland, where the process wasn’t rushed and he could let Safety Skin evolve at its own pace.

“The cost of opportunity is so much lower here than other places,” he said. “Maybe we could make an impact in another community, but it would come at a much higher cost to put everything together. Cost of living has been a huge help in us bootstrapping the business, and it’s why we’re still here today continuing to grow.”

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