The magic happened at a red light.
Nathan Wills was stopped behind a motorcyclist.
“He had the smallest tail light I’ve ever seen on a motorcycle and he was dressed in all black,” said Wills, the founder of Torch Apparel. Having just purchased his first motorcycle, Wills faced a dilemma: How could he look cool on his new hog while remaining visible?
“All of the safety stuff was too bright,” Wills said. After the encounter, the automotive designer went home and started “sketching like crazy.” What he came up with after many, many sketches was a helmet with integrated lights covered with polycarbonate lenses that disperse the light so riders are visible 360 degrees.
The young company debuted itself and its products at Interbike last month, and Wills said he had a positive experience and is looking forward to finally getting samples of his products production-ready. In addition to the T1 Helmet, the company launched its FLUX urban bag with integrated lights on the panel. Though the company will not exhibit at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market this winter, Wills said it might in the future.
That encounter with the near-invisible motorcyclist at the stoplight was about two years ago, Wills said, and finally after several prototypes Wills left his other job in February to became the founder and CEO of Torch full-time.
Wills holds a degree in transportation design from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. He’s previously held positions with Honda, BMW Group-Designworks USA and Bright Automotive. He founded Brandon + Bradley, a design consulting firm in his hometown of Los Angeles in 2009 and has been an avid bicycle commuter for many years.
Though the motorcyclist sparked his idea, it was his own experience as a bicycle commuter that was the basis for the product designs.
After officially launching at Interbike, Wills said he hired two new people, Dan Wills (his father) as COO and Tom Wyckoff as president.
“Up until two months ago it was only me,” Wills explained. The crew, plus a few other family members, hit the trade show floor last September in Las Vegas for what Wills said was a “positive experience.”
“I’ve been to other trade shows for other design stuff that I’ve done but this was my first outdoor bicycle market thing,” Wills said. “Overall the response was really positive. Everybody was really encouraging, they liked the product and they were anxious to get real product and real samples.
“It was nice to get feedback from people who are really going to use and sell this stuff.”
The goal of the products: Illuminate the largest surface area on a bicycle.
Wills said the largest surface area on a bicycle is the rider, and in order to be visible, the rider — rather than the bike — needs to be visible. Plus, he added, the higher up the light is, the better. That’s why he designed the T1 Helmet (MSRP $120) with the lights and lenses that disperse the light 360 degrees.
“The higher up you can get [the lights] the more visible they are when you’re in traffic,” Wills said. “If the light is at the same level as the headlights on the road, your bike light washes out.”
Wills added that the lights on the helmet and bag are not headlight-strength because that type of strength could potentially blind the drivers and put a bicycle commuter in danger.
On the FLUX bag, Wills said, all the electronics and lights are removable to make for easy cleaning of the fabric and recharging of the battery.
Wills said he hopes to compete with the helmet companies in the industry like Giro, Bell and Lazer, the last of which also does lights on helmets. In the bag segment, he said he hopes his product can compete with the likes of Chrome and Timbuk2.
“Those are the names I hope to be in competition with because I respect their design and their quality and I hope that we can be viewed as competitors,” Wills said.
Torch has several other products in the works including a mountain biking helmet and mounted bike lights. For more information visit their website at www.torchapparel.com or their Facebook page at www.facebok.com/torchapparel.
Eventually, Wills said, the company will branch out into other markets, including other outdoor sports but for now it's going to stick to the bicycle market.
"We don't want to grow too quickly and water down the brand," Wills said.