It started with a pool noodle.
Inspired by a do-it-yourself cycling safety device she saw online, Marina Cotarelo attached a pool noodle to her bike in January while on a five-day trip in Florida with friends. The idea was for cars to keep a safe distance while they were on the road — and it worked.
“There wasn’t a single close call at all,” Cotarelo said. “We found that we were more visible that way.”
Cotarelo, who graduated from Penn State in May with a master’s degree in higher education, pondered out loud on that trip about patenting such a product. One friend laughed at her, but Hailey Jones, who studied bioengineering at the University of Maryland and works as a scientist at Pfizer in North Carolina, jumped on board. She has used a road bike since she was 12 or 13 years old.
“I think I was more open to the idea because I’ve had a longer amount of time to see all the problems that exist on the road,” Jones said.
Embrace the Space, a startup seeking to cultivate a healthier relationship between cyclists and motor vehicles through products and education, began to take shape.
Last month, Embrace the Space completed the 10-week Happy Valley LaunchBox business startup accelerator program. Lee Erickson, chief amplifier at Happy Valley Launchbox, said that one of the things that makes Embrace the Space unique is the reason Cotarelo and Jones started it.
“They have a passion for cycling and this personal connection,” Erickson said.
Last summer, Cotarelo and Jones cycled across the country — from Connecticut to California — with Bike & Build, a national nonprofit that raises money for affordable housing and pairs cyclists with projects to build affordable housing along the route. On one of the Bike & Build trips operating at the same time and traveling through Idaho, there was an accident involving a motor vehicle. One cyclist died and the other was paralyzed.
“We valued safety pre- and post-accident, but looked at it in a different way after the accident,” Cotarelo said.
At Happy Valley LaunchBox, the original pool noodle-inspired idea evolved, largely through weeks of customer discovery.
“One of the biggest principles that LaunchBox taught us was the importance of customer development,” Jones said.
Now, they’re in the process of developing a high fidelity prototype of a belt that straps around the cyclist and, using LED lights and patterns, communicates with drivers about what the cyclist will do next. Education is also part of the startup’s aim now, with ideas that include creating a children’s book on cycling safety.
“They started out just working on a product that they could put on a bike and then realized they had to take a bigger approach to things,” Erickson said.
The young entrepreneurs call Embrace the Space their “side hustle,” and are hoping to have a website up and running within the next year, and a prototype out soon for consumer testing.
“I never pictured myself as a business person,” Cotarelo said. “But it’s matching your passion with a problem and trying to solve it.”