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An exercise in entrepreneurship

MechE alumnus Tal Cohen '04 brings fun and safety to working out

Sometimes the best ideas come at the most unlikely of times.

Back in 2011, Tal Cohen '04 was sweaty, out of breath, and having trouble figuring out where to put his phone while exercising. He found that existing workout clothing with pockets, armbands and clips to hold iPods and phones were cumbersome at best.

"I was looking to securely hold my phone while working out but couldn't find a method I liked," said Tal. "So I designed my own."

After graduating from Lehigh with a mechanical engineering and mechanics degree in 2004, Cohen began working for Nike, where he gained hands-on experience in product design and development. Cohen designed shoes, and cushioning systems, and even high performance soccer balls currently being used at the highest level in Europe and across the world.

"I really enjoyed my time at Nike," he recalls. "It was like a big sandbox where you were free to explore various technologies and innovate around the areas that you thought were interesting and had potential to advance sportswear and apparel."

Cohen now works for the firm R/GA, where he develops digital products. Although Cohen enjoys his new work, he found himself looking for ideas on creating a company to satisfy his interest in technical-- and tangible – products. It didn't take too many phone fumbles from the treadmill for Tal to put his muscle behind what he calls Underfuse Performance Pockets.

Cohen began designing a type of iron-on pocket that could be added to existing clothing to suit active lifestyles. He began developing the pockets so that they could hold anything from keys to smartphones; crucial to the idea was its ability to bond with the spandex and polyester materials used in most exercise apparel. The pockets he's created are infused with a polyurethane adhesive, which allows them to remain bonded to the clothing and withstand heavy use.

Cohen took his product to Kickstarter in 2011 to help raise funds and test the market for his invention. Within a few weeks, Cohen's project was completely funded; within a few months, Cohen launched a second Kickstarter for Underfuse+, a larger version of the pocket to suit the larger format phones which are now so popular.

"Kickstarter is great since there is a captive audience who is looking for and receptive to new ideas," he says. "It's also a great launching pad for a new business to get exposure from leading websites and publications who use the platform to learn about new and interesting items in the market."

More recently, Cohen announced a third Kickstarter campaign to add iron-on reflective strips to the company's product line. The reflective strips are designed in a very similar way to the pockets, allowing people to modify existing clothing to make exercising at night and in the early morning more safe.

According to Tal, current reflective vests for exercise are unflattering and bulky. However, Underfuse's new iron-on reflective strips are finished with highly durable reflective coating -- 30 seconds of ironing will turn any article of clothing into a safer accessory for outdoor exercise. Because of the product's do-it-yourself nature, athletes can customize their workout gear. Runners may want reflective strips on their legs and back, while cyclists may be better served with placement on their chest and back. These strips allow every person to decide what works best for them.

Not only are the iron-on reflective strips highly practical, they are also highly in demand. Within two weeks, Cohen's new product was fully funded, and several wholesale retailers have contacted him about distributing the strips world-wide.

Reflecting on his time at Lehigh, Cohen reflected on his time with the Formula SAE Club, citing it as one of the programs that most helped prepare him for the real-world challenges of starting his own company.

"During my time with Lehigh's FSAE team, we had to do everything ourselves – fundraising, design, manufacturing, etc.," Tal recalls. "We learned how to bring an idea to life and get it out to the world. This certainly accelerated my desire to design and produce products."

You can learn more about Underfuse at underfuse.com.

-Talia Dunyak '16 is a writer with the Dean's Office of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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