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Utah Business

Performance wear finally becomes more accessible with the help of Nike's investment in HandsFree Labs.

HandsFree Labs partners with Nike

I’ve always said that the best entrepreneurs are the ones who figure out solutions to the problems that consumers weren’t even aware they were suffering from.

Think about something as trivial as putting on your shoes, for example. It was probably one of the first things you learned to do as a kid, and since then you’ve been putting them on in exactly the same way every morning: you bend down (potentially straining your back), attempt to casually slide your foot inside, and then end up with a squished finger trying to get the heel of the shoe up and over your foot. 

It doesn’t matter what kind of shoe you are wearing―the motion is always the same and there has been little evolution in the footwear industry since its inception. But what if someone figured out a solution to the whole shoe problem? What if you could put your shoes on without bending over, hurting your back, or squishing your finger? What if you could put your shoes on and get out the door without using your hands? 

And what if that could make something as “every day” as shoes, finally more accessible to those individuals who struggle to put them on?

Going hands-free

Determined to revolutionize the footwear industry, Mike Pratt, former founder of Ogio International, hired a team of engineers to discover every way possible to put on shoes without your hands. Two years and 30 plus patents later, the team came up with HandsFree Labs and the F1 Titanium arc.

“We build [the Titanium Arc] into the shoe pre-loaded, so when you step on the back [of the shoe], all you have to do is slide your foot in and [the arc] pops back up,” says Monte Deere, CEO of HandsFree Labs.

“Remember how your parents had cars where they would take a key and put it in the door to unlock the lock?” he says. “Well, cars aren’t like that anymore. And would you want to go back? [Hands-Free shoes are the same way.]”

As soon as I tried on a pair (or three) during my tour of HandsFree’s facilities, I was sold. Their technologies really work. I tried on a sneaker, a sandal, and a boot and didn’t have to bend down at all. I didn’t even have to adjust the straps on the sandals or use my hand to pull up the heel of my boot over my thick socks. I had no idea how difficult putting on shoes could be until I tried doing so with the HandsFree technologies. Deere was right, I didn’t want to go back. 

“The truth is, it [can be] hard to put a finger on how many moments during every day or week that [you are] fussing with [your child] about getting their shoes off and on,” says Deere. “But, you know, if [HandsFree Labs] can make that moment easier 10 times a day and 70 times in a week, it begins to change lives.” And because everyone wears shoes, “This technology applies to everyone on the planet,” he says. 

Upon developing the arc, the team launched the F.A.S.T. (foot-activated shoe technologies) collection that eventually segued into the development of HandsFree Labs and the launch of the Kizik footwear brand in 2017. Since then, the Kizik brand has launched online and in 150 retail stores across the country. 

“We’re here to create a new category [in the shoe industry],” says Blake Brown, creative director at HandsFree Labs. “It’s a big, hairy, audacious goal, but footwear, as a category, hasn’t had much innovation. We are trying to make hands-free a category in a 270 billion dollar industry.”

And that’s already becoming a reality. 

The Nike investment

In November 2019, Nike, Inc. announced a “strategic investment” in HandsFree Labs and an intellectual property licensing partnership to their patent library. Essentially, the deal means that Nike can use any of the patented HandsFree technologies in any of their own shoes. In the blink of an eye, this tiny Utah company became a worldwide brand.

“Basically, Nike came to us and said, ‘we’d like to license your technology,’” says Deere, detailing the moment that changed the trajectory of the company. He doesn’t recall how exactly Nike found their brand and decided to invest, but likens it to their online and tradeshow presence. “[Nike] likes that we have a bunch of different technologies. They have the right to use a bunch of our technologies that we haven’t even tried to implement on a shoe yet.”

You can practically see the excitement in Deere’s eyes as he talks about the investment that put HandsFree Labs on the map. “Think of it this way: we had a great idea that could help people. How difficult would it be, for us as a startup, to take this concept and get it into the world,” says Deere. “Just think about the reach Nike has compared to us. Nike can make hands-free technologies available across the world.” 

And Nike has done just that, releasing the first shoe―a pair of classic Air Max 90s with HandsFree (though, Nike calls it FlyEase) technology―in March 2020. Though the shoes have laces, the wearer will only have to tie them to their liking one time. After that, the shoes slide off and on completely hands-free. And as a once-avid sneakerhead myself, I practically squealed with excitement when I saw the shoes. They look fresh.   

Deere shares my excitement. Though he can’t share specific details yet, he mentions that there are more collaborations coming throughout the year. “I’m not allowed to say what I know about releases,” says Deere. “But keep your eyes peeled because Nike is really embracing HandsFree Labs.” 

The accessible fashion movement

It’s not a surprise that Nike embraced HandsFree―as many as one in four US adults have a disability of some kind and this technology can help Nike meet the needs of its diverse consumer base. 

Accessible fashion―or fashion created specifically for individuals with disabilities―is being embraced by companies such as Calvin Klein, Target, and ABL Denim. The goal is to give a sense of independence back to those who might be hindered by a disability. 

“People who are obese, people who have had recent surgery (a knee replacement, hip replacement, or a broken arm), and they can’t put on shoes find that HandsFree shoes really alleviate their suffering because they can put the shoes on themselves without pain. It makes them feel independent again,” Deere says. “We hear a lot of stores and reviews from caregivers who have been tying their patient’s or loved one’s shoes for five years. [With HandsFree Labs] they can do it by themselves again. We design with total accessibility in mind.” 

That, perhaps, is the most impressive thing of all. Who knew that a small team of engineers, designers, marketers, and entrepreneurs could come together to solve one of the most pressing problems the shoe industry didn’t even know it had: total accessibility. “[It might take] someone with a disability 20-25 minutes to put on their shoes. And now they can do it themselves with not one ounce of [discomfort],” says Brown. “That’s our purpose. And there are not a lot of purpose-based fashion brands out there.” 

It’s this kind of purpose that will inspire the HandsFree team to continue innovating into the future. “Our team will stay hyper-focused on coming up with all of the various ways to get into a shoe hands-free. [Our team] kind of just does the craziest thing they can think of,” says Deere. And a quick glance at the prototypes strewn across the conference table at HandsFree Labs confirms this to be true. 

There is so much innovation in store for the shoe industry and HandsFree Labs is leading the way. As Deere would say, “why limit yourself at the top of the funnel?” 

Kelsie Foreman is the senior editor of Utah Business.

Comments (1)

  • Jay Hansen

    The bidness of Utah is giving us the bidness.

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