Activity, no matter how hectic or relaxed, always comes with its own set of issues. Athletic activity causes our feet to exert and naturally sweat. And with sweat comes an unpleasant odour and resultant bacteria.
Anyone who plays a sport, or runs, will tell you that the quest to find comfortable socks that don’t hinder impact and don’t stink is a challenge. Well, that does not need to be the case anymore, thanks to this initiative by two IIT Roorkee graduates.
Heelium is the brainchild of Prateek Sharma and Siddharth Jain, two sports enthusiasts and engineering graduates. Launched in July 2017, the company focuses on sports safety, high performance, innovation, sustainability and design.
Heelium derives the name from the core idea behind their shoe, which seeks to protect the runner, and is light enough, like the gas it is named after.
One of their wonder products is the bamboo sock. Being a materials engineer, it was Sharma who envisaged the solution for socks.
He tells The Better India, “Mostly, sportsmen wear cotton socks, that cage in perspiration and bacteria, causing a foul odour which can lead to infections. Our fibre is made from bamboo. Being thermodynamically stable, it keeps your feet warm in winter, and cool in summer. Sweat doesn’t get absorbed, and hence, there is no odour or blisters.” He adds that the socks are especially beneficial for long-distance runners.
The material was developed in August 2017, and the production was outsourced to a Mumbai-based company. Heelium provides materials and designs, and manufacturing is done according to specifications.
Launched in late January 2018, 2,100 pairs were sold in India and internationally in Singapore, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Presently, the socks are sold through online retailers Flipkart and Amazon.
Sharma has a deep insight into the long-term effect of using cotton. He rightly points out that cotton is just 3% of the world crop, but uses 30% of the pesticides, thus affecting the environment negatively. Bamboo, on the other hand, is eco-friendly, and we humans are yet to discover all its uses, the young entrepreneur says. He agrees with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s stand that bamboo is ‘green gold’.
The entrepreneurs have not randomly decided to produce socks and shoes. Prateek Sharma loved sports and did his masters in material science from IIT Roorkee. From there, he went to study sports engineering at the Sheffield University in the UK.
“In the UK, I worked with Adidas on footwear research, gaining a deep insight into the sports shoe business,” Sharma says.
Siddharth too has an engineering background and worked in the field of oil and gas in Singapore.
Heelium’s other product is its flagship. A high-performance running shoe, it will see a December 2018 launch. This is where Heelium has innovated. A special feature of the shoe is called Auximpro®, a patent-pending technology of the midsole.
“We use a polyurethane-based material in the midsole, that absorbs most of the impact while running, walking or standing. The insole is based on the runner’s feet shape, and their running style,” Sharma explains.
The shoe is hi-tech, and the energy is absorbed by the material, thus reducing stress and the strain on the knees, heels and ankle area. This material is five times as effective as the ethyl-vinyl-acetate (EVA Midsoles) in absorbing impact.
The patenting of the shoes is a time-consuming process. Meanwhile, Sharma is also looking to outsource the manufacturing of their shoes. Heelium aims to build a new product every 6-12 months, so as not to get bogged down by the manufacturing process. Sharma explains that the focus is always on newer materials, technologies and products that will aid sportspersons.
“Around half of all runners each year are injured, and the impact force caused during running has been one of the major sources of those injuries,” Sharma observes. He notes that a runner’s heel and knee go through a periodic force cycle of around 800 foot-strikes per mile.
In India, thanks to heavy import duties, running shoes from brands like Nike, Asics and Adidas are prohibitively expensive. The Indian footwear market is estimated to be around Rs 5,000 crores. Further, nearly 700 marathons are organised annually. Which is why, the shoe from Heelium makes sense, especially when you consider the pricing to be between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000, according to Siddharth.
Think about it. A running shoe that might reduce around 50% of the injuries runners face, which costs around 1/3rd of the price of imported footwear that we see all around us.
“It is difficult to enter the market, because of the prevalence of big players. Maintaining a high quality during production stage is quite a challenge. Several checks at every step ensure quality,” Siddharth shares. He adds that the shoes are designed in a way to fit like socks. The peripheral size of the laces is larger, so the fit is right.
Individually-customised arc support in soles help strike the right balance. Heelium’s midsole technology provides high protection, and a support counter for the heel provides stability.
Heelium’s products make a difference, and people using them have been quite pleased with the outcome. However, the challenge lies in awareness, as both founders agree. They understand the need to tap the right sales and marketing channels and facilitate an awareness campaign.
As for those of you who hit the tarmac every morning, try out a pair of these socks which you can buy here, and experience their advantages yourself!
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)