Eric De Golier was an elite cyclist, representing the USA at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. One of the key ways professional cyclists could shave vital seconds off their time was by understanding the effects of aerodynamic drag on their performance, but without the resources of a professional team, spending the necessary time in a wind tunnel just wasn’t affordable for Eric, or most aspiring amateurs. After the Paralympics, he retired from cycling to focus on his engineering qualifications.
Several years later Eric, by now working in the sports technology industry, met a fellow keen cyclist and engineering student called Thomas Irps. Together they were consulting for UK Sport and British Rowing to build a measurement system for their athlete identification programme.
Reinventing the wheel
Eric was surprised to find that in 2011, aerodynamic measurements were still astronomically expensive, and therefore only available to the same small set of cyclists as they had been seven years earlier. While working on the project, and with preparations for the upcoming London Olympics in the news, Eric and Thomas started talking about how aerodynamic drag could be measured differently to make it more accessible. They hit on an idea that used Thomas’ knowledge of aerodynamics, Eric’s background in sensing equipment, and recent developments in miniaturized electronics, to design a system that could integrate directly into a bike.
Wind tunnels were necessary for performing these kinds of measurements because the calculations involved require the cyclist and their bike to be in a fixed position. The other variables, and their effect on each other, could only be measured because the point at which the wheels of the bike touch the ground is fixed and constant.
Thomas and Eric recognised that there were other fixed points that could be used while a bike was in motion – at the three points of contact between the cyclist and their machine; the handlebars, pedals and seat. They built a proof of concept system over the next two months, partnered with Queen Mary University to run initial wind tunnel trials, and from there set out to build a fully rideable system.
Making the dream a reality
Around this time, Thomas arrived at the University of Sussex to begin his MSc in Advanced Mechanical Engineering. He heard about the Santander Associate Entrepreneurship Bursary, a scheme that would provide funding and support to students developing business ideas via the Sussex Innovation Centre. Thomas entered his and Eric’s Bodyrocket system in 2012, and won.
British cycling was going through something of a golden age that year, with Bradley Wiggins becoming the first Briton to ever win the Tour De France, and the national track team winning multiple medals at the Olympic Games in London. The Support team at Sussex Innovation helped Vortex Sport Design to work on a compelling business plan that illustrated the growing levels of public interest and investment in the sport, and proved the significance of the commercial opportunity. Local industry partners were also identified, to help with the continued development of the prototype.
Building for the future
Eric and Thomas’ innovation was selected as the University’s entry into the national postgraduate Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards in 2013, eventually winning the third place prize. Vortex Sport Design are now building the third generation of the Bodyrocket system, which uses cutting edge sensors and works with a full-sized bike and rider. Their hope is to enable the entire next generation of cyclists to have unlimited, affordable access to their aerodynamic data.