Interview: Zona rear-view cameras
Zona is a name bikers may not have heard of yet but it’s one that’s looking likely to make a big splash in the industry over the next few months.
Zona builds rear-view cameras for bikers, which aim to make bikers feel safer on the road without interfering with the enjoyment of riding.
If you laid your hands on a Google Glass unit, it’s pretty similar. It slots into any helmet and provides a view of the road behind you on a small screen that sits in front of your eye.
It’s a live feed of what’s behind you on the road and is designed to make riders more aware of what’s around them without distracting them from the road.
While it’s been designed to improve riding rather than distract from it, Zona is ultimately a piece of safety kit that was borne from frustration on the road, something John Hale, CEO and founder of Zona, was keen to get across.
“Constantly looking in my mirrors and behind me was interrupting my enjoyment on the bike so with a background in electronics and engineering I thought something could be done.
“After an accumulation of near misses, either because I hadn’t spotted a vehicle behind me or I’d almost ran into a vehicle up ahead because I was too busy looking in my mirrors, the tipping point was another close shave on the M27 en route to work.”
That’s where the idea of Zona began and while tt started with a personal aim to bring the joy back into riding while improving safety, it soon became clear to Hale that the product had legs, and that’s where Zona started in earnest.
No mean feat
“I wanted it to be practical and useful rather than high-tech for the sake of high-tech. There was an issue I wanted to solve and it was about using the tech to solve it, rather than going the opposite way of, we’ve got this tech, what can we do with it,” said Hale.
“In 2003 we started looking at what we needed to do and there were certain aspects that needed to be there right from the beginning. It shouldn’t distract and it should improve safety and enjoyment.
“We knew we needed a camera, which needed to be on a fixed platform so the rider didn’t need to mess with it to get the right view and the rider needed to be able to relate to the camera almost sub-consciously.
“We tried various things and came down to the concept we have now, after a hell of a lot of work on the road measuring forces and vibration to make sure we had a view that was clear and stable.
“Where we fell down at that point was that the technology we needed in terms of the display and optics just wasn’t there, it wasn’t available.
“It didn’t fit the way wanted to, or at a cost point that made it affordable, so we parked the project for a long time – we also knew that we needed a lot of money to get it to market.”
Back on track
Zona stayed parked for more than five years but then things got back on track, in no small part thanks to a big chunk of money.
“In 2010, two things came together. The optical and display technology had caught up to where we needed it to be and we also managed to find a source of funding to enable us to do the initial development work.”
Funding came via Europe and allowed initial development, design and prototyping work to kick off but as is the case with any start up business, there are hiccups along the way, and Zona was no different as technical issues with optics put the launch date back again.
By the start of 2014 the product was finally designed in full, with market research and prototypes ready, however the money pot was running dry which meant another effort to secure more funding to move the business into the full production and manufacturing stage.
“We carried on injecting more of our own money into the business to keep the development going and then we started a search for additional funding, and we’re talking about substantial funding.
“It wasn’t just about development and type approval, it was for tooling and being able to purchase stock for manufacturer. It’s not like Dragon’s Den. It’s hard to raise money for a start up business with no trading history in the UK. It’s a difficult environment.”
But the process seemed worth it when the necessary funding for Zona was finally achieved on January 6 this year – and since then it’s been all systems go.
“Since then we’ve started accelerating the work again. Turning a design into something that can be manufactured is still a lot of work with approvals and tooling, for example, but since then we’ve been flat out and continue to be so.”
Carl Fogarty on-board
Despite only being available to order this year, Zona has already got some advocates in the bag, none more famous than former World Superbike Champion, Carl Fogarty, who was involved in the development stages of the rear-view motorcycle camera.
“I met Carl Fogarty at an event a couple of years ago and just asked for a bit of his time to run him through the idea and the product,” said John Hale, founder and CEO of Zona.
“I explained what we were doing – including our lack of money at the time – and how much he would help us with the product. Nobody knew Zona but most bikers know of Carl Fogarty. Fortunately he saw the benefit of the product and after a bit of time agreed to come on-board.
“Since then he’s been involved in testing and development, so much so that he’s now a shareholder.”
But what do the public think?
As well as strong opinions and product feedback, Fogarty was also on hand at Zona’s first public launch at this year’s MCN London Bike Show in February, something Hale described as a nerve wracking experience but one that proved there was something in the product.
“London was great. It was the first time we’d dipped our toe out there in the glare of the public and we learnt a lot from it.
“We’ve done testing in the past with normal bikers but it’s been in controlled environments. When you open it up you get more honest feedback and you also have the opportunity to change the sceptics’ mind too.
“It gave us an unbiased reaction from normal bikers – and people liked the product, they got it.”
Bearing in mind the time spent developing Zona that was music to Hale’s ears, as were the orders his company secured at the show for the £239 unit.
Initial deliveries are set to reach buyers by the end of June and the product is being manufactured in the UK.
“It’s a UK product and it’s patented so it gives us the opportunity to move forward with it and develop it further.”
According to Hale those developments are set to include a recording feature, allowing riders to play back their video.
That change came about from feedback at the MCN show and that additional feature is going to widen the appeal of a product that looks it’s going to make a big splash with UK bikers this year.