Providence, Rhode Island
might not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about a home base for an industry leading, mountain bike protection technologies company. Surely there are other parts of the world, of America, heck, even of New England, that might prove a more apropos location for testing and developing mountain bike specific protection. The largest city in the country's smallest state is perched right on the Atlantic coast, doesn't offer up much in terms of topographic elevation, and is more commonly associated with Peter Griffin's family and the least well known of the Ivy League options, Brown University, than it is with mountain bikes.
However, right in the heart of this picturesque New England capital, you'll find the headquarters for one of mountain biking's most innovative protection brands, G-Form. A team of engineers and athletes formed the company in 2010 with expertise in polymer chemistry, 3-D design, photography, and mold making, and faced a fuzzy future, as applications for what was then a gel technology were still largely unknown. Fast forward less than a decade later, and G-Form now not only leads the market for mountain bike protection (they hold the top five spots for knee pad sales, and the top three for elbow pad sales), but have moved into snow sports, soccer, and baseball product development as well.
Pinkbike recently spent some time with the G-Form team at their Providence headquarters, and were also granted access to their production facilities 20 minutes up the road; to have a behind the scenes look at their operations, and to get a better idea of how a nondescript, polymer-technology company in a seemingly innocuous part of the world, transformed into the front-running mountain bike protection brand they are today.
Mike Taylor, VP of Product
What does R&D entail for a company like G-Form?
It emcompasses everything from the intial idea, through working with our marketing manager on determining our target customer, through concept design. Let’s say we’re developing a knee pad for enduro racers. We want to offer not just protection, but a high level of flexibility since you’re going to be pedalling up transfer stages and sprinting throughout the race. We would detail that in a product briefing, and the design team would then take that and begin working on concepts. It begins with a 2-D drawing of various ideas. As a team, which includes engineers, designers, and people like Frank and Robbie in sales in marketing, working together to narrow that down to the eventual product. Once we’ve got that down, it goes to what some people call commercialization, where we actually work through pad geometry, which fabrics we’re going to use, and everything else that takes it from a concept to an actual product.
My team works on products from the very beginning of the product all the way through production. I’m out at our Polyworks factory at least once a week, taking a look at what is in production, and what is coming soon to production. It’s a great luxury to have the resource so close by. We have some pretty unique manufacturing processes, and we work with the Polyworks team well in advance (of production) to figure out how we’re going to build it. Once the product development is done, we spend a lot of time with our sales, marketing, and internal web teams on product education.
Can you describe the evolution of G-Form from a product perspective?
The company was founded on innovation with both materials and molding techniques, and it yielded a foam pad that offered really good protection qualities and was also able to be molded into forms that gave it a high degree of flexibility. You need both of those in mountain biking.
From there, soccer shin guards was another place for us to go. If you’re a fan of that sport, you know that shin guards haven’t changed much in almost 50 years. Most of them are a foam shell backed by hard plastic. We produced the first flexible shin guard that passed certification.
Most recently we’ve gotten into baseball. Getting hit by a baseball hurts, and it’s another place where our technology makes sense. You’re able to protect the players with elbow and leg protection in a way that allows for mobility. We’re always looking for new opportunities where our technology can be relevant.
Their current digs are unassuming, to say the least, but G-Form are quickly outgrowing their home and are ready to stretch their legs in a new facility by next year.
Where do you guys see room for innovation as it pertains to mountain bike protection?
This is going to sound self-serving, but lighter weight materials and greater flexibility. Protection only works if you’re wearing it. Mountain bike protection is a crowded market, but there is a lot of product out there that uses traditional, hardshell approach. It’s heavy and burly, and it’s very comfortable when you’re on the bike. We offer something with a lower profile fit while still offering protection. We spend a lot of time asking ourselves how we can increase protection, while still maintaining the flexibility we’ve been known for in this market.
How do you do that?
Technology really comes down to three things. The first part if the material. It’s a polyurethane base, and when it comes to an impact with something, it actually hardens. At a molecular level, when this material is at rest, the molecules are repelling each other, giving the pads their flexibility. When you hit it, the molecules line up, and it becomes hard for a few milliseconds. Once they release, it goes right back to its soft state. It’s multi-use and doesn’t lose its ability to do that over time.
The second part is a particular molding technology that we have that’s called “zero flood”, and it’s where a lot of our intellectual property is. We’re able to get infinite flexibility because there is no foam between our padded panels, but we also have a thin layer of TPU film that goes over the entire pad and into the zero flood channel, which keeps the water out. During the molding process, the TPU goes into the mold first, then the polyurethane comes in, and then the backing comes down with heat and compression. That’s a technology that is unique to us.
The third part is what we call body mapping. This is a concentric design that is based on the joint. The thickest part of our pads are centered over the joints. A hip doesn’t move as much as an elbow, so you can see between the two types of pads that the body part has influenced the shape and design of the padding. It’s also sport dependent. So those are our big three components: materials, zero flood, and body mapping.
G-Form employs 18 in house designers and engineers, a massive number that allows for rapid and comprehensive product development.
How do you guys balance flexibility with protection? When you pursue one or the other, is there a cost that sees those two qualities work against each other?
There’s always a tradeoff between protection and flexibility. You can make a bullet proof pad that’s two inches thick that no one wants to ride in. You find the line via prototyping, testing, and revision. You cycle through that over and over. The great thing about having our mold shop twenty minutes away is that we don’t have to wait weeks or months for those to come back. We can turn things around in just a few days.
One of our company’s founders, Stephanie Thorne, was one of the inventors of the molding process and is our mold engineer. So an idea can go from a designer, to her, to the mold shop in a day if it’s a priority item. We make prototypes of all of our pads long before production, we can sew them onto some sleeves with the sewing machines we have in our offices, and we can get them on people and test them right away. We have a lot of people around here who can ride, and we are able to get that out quickly.
With protection, you can’t have infinite flexibility because there are regulations that we work within. 1621 is the big one for motocross and downhill, and that’s a standard that we have to meet. That becomes an exercise in design for us, working to meet that impact standard while maintaining as much flexibility as possible. It’s almost half art and half science. Our lead designer has been here from the start. He’s designed knee and elbow pads throughout his career, and he has a lot of tribal knowledge in knowing what he needs to do for impact safety and what he needs to do in order to maintain flexibility. He has a great intuition for how those two work together.
The Rhode Island-based protection company is also very protective of their process and asked us to refrain from using most of the photos from our visit to their production facilities. They did, however, offer up some sneak peeks at some of their future product offerings and design cues.
Bob Burbank, CEO
What does your role as the CEO for G-Form entail?
I’m a part time strategist, part time enthusiast, part time cheerleader, part time instigator; I think that I touch most aspects of the business. My primary role is to surround myself with great people and great talent.
Where were you before you joined G-Form?
Prior to G-Form, I was the global GM for both Cannondale and GT Bicycles. Prior to that, I ran product development and engineering for Burton Snowboards. I’ve been in this space for well over 10 years. I love the sports enthusiast segment. I am an active snowboarder, cyclist, runner, and pretty much anything that requires physical activity.
According to Bob, the plan for the near future is to find a facility that will accommodate both the corporate and design offices for G-Form, as well as their production facility, Polyworks.
Where did G-Form come from?
We started at the end of 2010 primarily as a gel company. We had this technology that was in more of a gel form. We manufactured throttle shifters, inserts for shoes, metatarsal covers for the tops of footwear. We quickly got into electronics. If you look at the earlier days of G-Form, you’ll see an iPad being dropped from 100,000 feet and surviving. You’ll see hockey players slapshotting iPhone cases into a goalie net, it was all about electronics packaging and things of that sort. The issue was that most people viewed us as a commodity product. Given the value of the technology, this was a very expensive place for us to “play” in back then. Packaging for cell phones and electronics changes seemingly every single month. It was expensive to tool. Once a Samsung Galaxy goes from a 4, to a 5, to a 6, those prior products become obsolete. Instead of selling a cover for $40, it’s all of a sudden worth $.40.
At the same time we were realizing this, we happened to be getting into the development of soft knee pads and protection for the mountain bike market. That really became the focus when I arrived at the company in 2015. I wanted to move us away from electronics packaging, and build off of some of the legacy bike pieces while expanding the line, and adding additional categories. So we rapidly began investing in people and structure. We’ve been through several iterations. In 2015 we launched our women’s and youth lines. Prior to that, most of the products we produced were unisex, so we saw the need for products to keep our kids safe, but also understood that women’s bodies are considerably different than a man’s in many places. Tracy Mosely helped us to create products that are relevant in the gravity space, and also mountain biking in general.
Over the last couple of months we’ve introduced slideables for board sports, the new 1621 knee pad for mountain biking, so we’ve continued to expand in the action sport segment. We’ve always wanted to make sure our products were relevant, but also protective. A lot of the older school technology, whether it’s plastic, or carbon, or E.V.A.; it’s super cheap which is why most people use it, so you have the business guy sitting here going “Hey let’s use E.V.A. because it’s super cheap!”
. The reality is that EVA foam doesn’t protect. Our focus on everything we do passes some form of certification.
I just did a presentation at PrevCon
, and the number one reason why parents don’t allow their kids to participate in a team sport, or even ride their bikes to school is safety. They’re afraid they’ll get hurt. A lot of those sports, whether it’s football, or riding a bike, playing basketball, etc., the existing big brand product is pretty self-explanatory. What I love about the bike industry is while we’re typically pretty behind when it comes to accepting new technologies and innovations, we’ve taken a leadership role when it comes to protection. We’ve seen a massive transition, whether it’s been us, or Troy Lee, or Kali Protectives, from this hard plastic approach to softer, more technologically advanced design for protection. That doesn’t happen very often in most sporting good industries, at least not in terms of technology. That is great to see. Now we’re seeing other sports begin to follow that trend, because obviously protection is a forefront concern for most parents and athletes in general.
Athletes are progressing our sport at ridiculous levels, and that can be attributed to better bike design and better protection. These things allow for much more superior performance.
Unassuming it may be, but the Providence location does offer up some appropriately technical and vibrant riding opportunities nearby, which G-Form take full advantage of when it comes to real world product testing.
How do you balance the need to see ahead of the technology curve, while still being thorough and thoughtful with what you guys offer today? How far into the future to you need to look in terms of product development and testing?
We are 18–36 months out as far as development goes. I’m an engineer by trade, so when I was at Burton, I kind of helped muster in some of the shapes and newer materials. Same thing at Cannondale. You begin to think about progression, and it all centers around the product. Nobody needs a $10,000 bike, but everybody wants one. People ride bikes because they love to ride. There’s an emotive connection. The other part of that is once you have that connectivity with the rider, you see that they want the best products. You can fool somebody once with great branding and marketing, but if the product doesn’t perform as stated, you’ve lost them.
For us, we need to be a product driven company. The marketing piece, and the athletes are certainly important, and they come along for the ride, but the centerpiece for G-Form is the product. We will always have the best product. We will today, and we will tomorrow. Michael, our lead engineer, will tell you that we have 19 people in product development. For a company our size, that’s unheard of. Even for the bigger brands out there don’t have a product team this big. We have engineering on staff. We own our own factory, and we engineer our own products. We can get to the market faster than anyone on the planet. That’s our competitive advantage. We own the factory, we own the patents, we own the development; most brands can’t say that. They have a product manager, they get on a plane and head to a factory in southeast Asia or wherever, and they’re 12–18 months out from being able to deliver a product to market
. Michael has developed products that are fully certified and under CE in less than nine months. That’s always going to be our mantra: If we ever have to make changes, we’ll never cut product. That’s my focus.
What does it mean for a product to be fully certified under CE?
The CE certification, EN1621, is something that we obviously make sure that all of our pads pass for the purpose of what they’re being used for. If you’re going to have a downhiller using our products, you want them to have that certification. When we look at our court sports, we have CE approval on their knees. A lot of the big brands don’t have that. It’s not easy to get. They’re using EVA foam, which will never get a CE certification.
How can you be a protection brand and put products to market that doesn’t pass that level of certification? You’re almost doing your customers a disservice and providing a false pretense by putting products on children and adults, and telling them to have at it. It’s not just about wearing padding, it’s about wearing the right padding. We’re very adamant that if it isn’t ready and doesn’t pass a certain level of certification, we won’t release it.
Look carefully and you'll find some cool memorabilia scattered throughout HQ.
How do you go about communicating this attention to detail to the consumer? A lot of protection companies have their fingers in both the mountain bike and motocross pots, which generates a crossover appeal for many riders, and that’s not something you guys have. It would seem as though it’s on you as a brand to then educate the consumer a bit more given the lack of “moto-cred”, for better or worse, and obviously you can’t sit and have a twenty-minute conversation with every potential customer looking for a new set of knee pads.
That’s our biggest challenge. Our technology is so revolutionary, and it’s so different than anything else out there on the market, which makes it hard to have a technical conversation with somebody when you have it sitting in a package in a shop somewhere. That’s forced us to change our retail approach. We have videos with more of an educational component right at the point of retail so that we are able to better communicate what the benefits are. We highlight the differences between EVA and our proprietary foam. When it comes to credibility, we have guys like Bill Ruddell, who comes from the motocross world, and they were the drivers behind our desire to attain that moto certification of EN1621.
As far as athletes go, you have to get your product to the right people. It’s not just influencers, but people who believe in the product. Most pro athletes are paid dollars to wear products from any number of brands. We’re in a unique situation where we don’t really pay our athletes to wear our stuff. They come to us, or their agents come to us, or even insurance companies come to us. We elect to put our our money into product development. We have an amazing following already in the NBA and MLB because of the trainers. They’ll tell us that there are guys who are hurt, or are afraid of getting hurt, and request our products. Neymar (da Silva Santos), now a crazy rich soccer star, is actually a mountain biker and had one of our earlier pads. This is a true story: He actually took one of our knee pads, slid it down his leg and began using that as his shin guard. He gave us the inspiration to get into soccer. Steph Curry was using that same soccer shin guard to help him get over a shin injury. We didn’t pay him or ask him to use it. He got it because his trainer worked with another trainer from the Dodgers, and Justin Turner had been using our stuff as well. There’s a very cool network of trainers that allows for our stuff to flow from one industry to another. During the Superbowl, when Tom Brady is talking to Devin McCourty at the end of the game, he’s wearing our top. I have no idea where he got it. As long as we maintain product as our centerfold, we’ll have an even brighter future.
G-Form's success comes from its team of intelligent, creative, and hard working people with a shared vision for product development, and the cultivation of an enjoyable workplace.
Can you talk about the growth of G-Form as a company? It seems like you have brought in a lot of folks over the past 8–18 months to help elevate the production and profile of the brand. How much growth have you guys experienced? Are you also looking for a new production and corporate space?
Yep, we’ve outgrown this building. I’m a firm believer in bringing the whole team together as one group. Polyworks is the manufacturing group that we own, and they’ve outgrown their space as well. We are actively looking to move out of this building by the end of the year. We’ve added 35% to our headcount in the past year alone. Our compound annual growth rate for the next five years will be well in excess of 100%. This year we’re trending through six months at 87% year-over-year growth. We just got the rolling forecast from SSI (Survey Sampling International), and we hold the top five spots in knee pads sold. We hold the top three in elbows. I think that a lot of it has to do with the people who have joined G-Form. They’re incredibly well respected; Frank Berrios, Bill Rudell, Steve Kwait, these guys all come from the bike industry, and what they have built over the last 18 months is remarkable.
When I first got here, we were viewed as the company that kind of helped progress the sport of cycling from a protection standpoint, but no one ever viewed us as a key player. It was always the usual suspects. We have grown so fast, and so quickly, that we’re the ones that people are looking at and saying “these guys are really pushing it on the product side, and they’re also really pushing it on the consumer experience side”. That’s a great place to be.
I always want to surround myself with the best people. When I was at Cannondale, people would always ask why I wasn’t out on the forefront more. But Cannondale was never about me, and G-Form isn’t about me. G-Form is us. It’s the “we” piece. It sounds corny, and you hear this from people sitting in my chair all of the time, but I pride myself on showing that leadership ability that we all have and that people have the ability to make this culturally the place they want to work and have fun. This is all about us. I want people waking up in the morning and to be excited about coming in here. That’s how I want to wake up. I don’t want to wake up dreading my job. I want people to have fun.
We have great technology, and we have great products. We just want to be known by more people and in more places. I think specifically on the bike side, we’ve done a tremendously good job at that. It’s not me doing, it’s my people. It’s been a team effort.
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