Milwaukee startup creates life vest for kayakers, triathletes and others who won’t wear bulky preservers
When Pat Hughes completed his first triathlon, he learned of the death of a fellow competitor during the swim portion of the event in Lake Winnebago.
Shaken by the tragedy, the University of Wisconsin-Madison senior business major vowed to invent a lightweight, minimalist life vest that would appeal to triathletes, surfers, kayakers, anglers, standup paddle boarders, sailors and anyone else who should, but probably doesn’t, wear a personal flotation device.
Several years later, Hughes and his business partner, Mike Fox, developed the Wingman life vest, which weighs only 1.6 pounds and features a small CO2 cylinder at the neck. By pulling a small handle on the front to activate the cylinder, the Wingman turns into a buoyant life preserver. It can be reused by quickly replacing the $15 CO2 cartridge.
“A lot of people wonder why we got into the life jacket business,” said Hughes as he recounted the tragedy at his first triathlon. “It surprised me because that didn’t even cross my mind, that something like that would happen.
“It got me thinking — what can I do for my safety? There are inflatable vests, but they’re bulky and definitely not designed for in-water things like swimming and surfing. We also knew if you made a vest comfortable and sleek enough, it would appeal to fishermen and kayakers,” Hughes said.
The Wingman comes in bright yellow, red, black and camouflage and retails for $249 on the website of Fox and Hughes’ company, Hyde Sportswear.
Hyde won the 2016 Governor’s Business Plan Contest organized by the Wisconsin Technology Council.