In 2004, California entrepreneur Dennis Bertken and his business partner watched the fallout from the Southeast Asian tsunami. In 2005, they watched the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They realized they had to do something to help people deal better with disasters—before they happen. They started a company called Life+Gear Inc., which makes everyday products that also aid in emergency preparedness.
Today, Life + Gear, a company whose founders consider landfills and packaging as they consider the bottom line, has products at major retailers and supplies the American Red Cross with disaster-related emergency items. I talked to Bertken about the company and the products–and why they’re better than duct tape.
Why was Katrina such a motivator for you?
We saw the whole system shutting down, and we realized you can’t wait until after a disaster happens. In the U.S. especially, we’re really good at sounding the alarm when a disaster happens, but we’re also really good at hitting the snooze button. We came up with this idea of integrating safety into everyday life. We invent products that people would go into the store and buy anyway, but we build in safety factors. So despite themselves, they’ll be prepared.
What was your first product?
The Personal Safety Device, or PSD, which is a hand-held six-feature, crank-powered emergency product. We designed a flashlight that had a siren, radio, compass, backup battery source and could charge a cell phone. The day after we introduced it in 2005, we had an order for 15,000 units. It was the number-one selling product at Dillard’s that year. We’ve launched one new product every month since then. Now we’re in grocery stores, hardware stores, discount stores and high-end department stores.
Think of a chemical glow stick. You break it, it works for three to eight hours, and then you throw it away. But the chemicals are extremely dangerous for the environment. We don’t want that—or the plastic—in our landfills. Some cities are considering legislation to prohibit them being sold in their cities. So our concept was to reinvent the product. Our Glowstick is a LED flashlight with a 200-hour life in the flasher mode, an emergency whistle, and we provide free batteries. We took that product and expanded to a while family of glow products, like a spotlight that lasts for 300 hours and has a compartment to store a first aid kit and turns on automatically if it hits water.
Another product is our Wings of Life Backpack. We looked at the Camelback—it’s light and versatile. But our product you unzip down the middle to create wings with all the first aid and emergency stuff you need to survive for three days.
Have you ever been in one of these emergency situations for which you’re trying to prepare your customers?
We’re trying to prepare people for every kind of disaster situation—from Katrina to fires. Down here in the San Diego region, my house was surrounded by fire. Our office was evacuated. You have to get used to having no power.
What’s your approach to packaging?
Our approach is 100 percent usable packaging. The idea is that instead of giving something to the consumer to throw away, we can invent something that’s valuable to the customer. With flashlights, the packaging is a wall mount. I’m working on usable packaging that has a panic alarm built into it—which will also sound if someone tries to steal the product.
What’s new for 2010?
In January we’ll announce a one-pound empty sandbag to use in flooding. Instead of transporting sand and shoveling it into sandbags, you just get one of these wet, and the water is absorbed and becomes part of the bag’s molecular structure. It takes the shape of a six-inch-high sandbag and becomes pounds. A 70-year-old woman could just lay these out in front of her door and take a garden hose or wait for it to rain. Its made from a proprietary polymer, and it’s 100 percent biodegradable.
I’m glad we’ve moved beyond the duct tape philosophy of emergency preparedness, which prepares us for a chemical attack, but not much else.
Yes, but we’ve found that in the in US, the number of people willing to go out and proactively buy the things they need for a disaster is a very small population. If we can sell them a backpack that has ingredients in it that can help them if they get stranded, they’ll be prepared. But in addition to saving lives, these products have everyday utility.