It’s A Swedish Thing
At Poc, the design of the products and the principles of the company are all driven by a strong sense of national identity
Why a sense of national identity is the driving force behind product design at Poc
The Swedish are obsessed by light. When Cyclist visits Stockholm just after midsummer, there’s an uncommon clarity to the light in this part of the world that’s infectious – it can’t fail but make you feel optimistic. It’s no real surprise, then, that the HQ of Poc, a brand totally and utterly Swedish by its own admission, luxuriates in a huge amount of natural light.
It provides a sense of calm in the working environment, yet considering the growth trajectory of the relatively young brand over the past few years, efficiency doesn’t seem to have been dulled by the relaxed atmosphere.
‘I’d pin the root cause of our development on our inherent Swedishness,’ says Poc’s global PR manager, Damian Phillips. It’s an intriguing comment considering Phillips is from Wales. He moved to Stockholm to join Poc four years ago and now can’t imagine living anywhere else.
‘Swedish culture has democracy and egalitarianism at its core. It’s quite an eye-opener coming from the UK. In Sweden truly anyone can do whatever they want – the country has the largest start-up rate in Europe because innovation is encouraged. We’re always trying to innovate.’
We move around the serene, open-plan space and get to a bank of workstations. Desk spaces appear personal yet all maintain a homogenous, elegant style – it’s no different to Poc’s wide-ranging yet consistent product catalogue.
‘Everyone involved with product sits more or less together,’ says Phillips. ‘It helps with communication, plus we enjoy each other’s company.’
While they aren’t separated by much geographically, temporally the span might be two to three years, with product development sitting to the right, working seasons ahead,
‘Swedish culture has democracy and egalitarianism at its core. In Sweden truly anyone can do whatever they want’
and marketing, sitting to the left, focused on the here and now.
The brand may have come a long way from its humble beginnings but the purpose has remained unchanged. ‘Poc is a Swedish company with a mission to do the best we possibly can to save lives and reduce the consequences of accidents for gravity sports athletes and cyclists,’ Phillips recites. ‘You’ll see that written about the place, on our website and products – all we do is to further that mission.’
The dawn of Poc
Poc was conceived about 11 years ago by Stefan Ytterborn. ‘He had the idea of Poc on a ski lift – he was a ski racer and he has two sons who were both into racing, so they were on a usual training weekend,’ Phillips says. ‘Looking at his sons wearing poor-quality helmets – the only ones available at the time – he thought there must be a better way to do protection for racers. That was where he had his eureka moment and Poc was born, along with the mission.’
Ytterborn stepped back from the company at the start of 2016 to pursue a venture in e-mountain bikes, but his ideals still inform the way Poc goes about its business.
‘Stefan’s background was in design consultancy,’ says Phillips. ‘He worked with Ikea and other furniture companies. He was very design-focused but wanted to make something that had a better purpose than purely looking good. That’s where he realised that to be relevant and competitive people had to have protection that they enjoyed wearing. That meant never scrimping on the product, but for it to be the best he thought we needed the best evidence, the best technology to underpin our designs. So he immediately created two forums: Poc Lab and Watts Lab. These are panels of independent
scientists that help advise us on safety and performance respectively.’
Despite its best intentions, it took a stroke of luck to put Poc on the map. American skier Julia Mancuso was a rising star when she signed with Poc before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Sestriere, Italy, but had yet to win anything major. Totally unexpectedly she won gold, and questions started to be asked about who her helmet and goggle sponsor was.
‘The whole of Sweden was rooting for Anna Ottosson, who ended up third,’ says Phillips. ‘But there were these five guys in Stockholm in the Poc office going mad for Julia.’
With Poc’s heritage rooted in snowsports, the company only branched into cycling around four years ago, and it took another chance exposure for the brand to get its foot in the door in the road market.
‘At the 2014 Giro d’italia Ryder Hesjedal wore our Do Blade
‘Instead of making products that helped mitigate the effect of a collision we focused on preventing that collision’
sunglasses. He got in the break one day, so got loads of airtime. The reaction to the glasses on social media was crazy, as they didn’t look like performance glasses did at the time,’ says Phillips.
According to Phillips, the company’s mission meant it was always just going to be a matter of time before Poc got into road cycling – after all, few other sports involve such great risk and such little protection. That is why Poc is best known for its first kit initiative, AVIP.
Phillips walks us over to meet Poc’s head of apparel, Monica Lindström. She is so quintessentially Scandinavian in appearance – stylish and athletic with blonde hair and blue eyes – that Cyclist wonders if she is merely an actor, employed for the day to reinforce Poc’s Swedish credentials, but the passion with which she speaks convinces us that Poc’s soft goods projects are very close to her heart.
‘AVIP stands for attention, visibility, interaction, protection,’ she explains. ‘We knew early on trying to sell protection to road cyclists would be really hard because they like to wear their skin-tight Lycra. So we looked at the statistics and science
‘The reaction to the Do Blade glasses was crazy, as they didn’t look like performance glasses did at the time’
behind the danger in road cycling by consulting the members of Poc Lab. Cyclists crash, but the worst injuries are caused by collisions with cars. So instead of making products that helped mitigate the effect of a collision we focused
on preventing that collision from happening, with colours and patterns that have been proven to improve visibility from 120m to 670m.’
Similar thinking was employed to create Poc’s original and best-selling road product, the Octal helmet.
Head of affairs
We meet a Poc stalwart, Oscar Huss, who is head of hard goods and has been here almost from the very beginning. We’re in a large, airy room where 3D-printed models of all of Poc’s helmets in various development phases line one wall.
‘We let the construction of the Octal be informed by crash data provided by Poc Lab, rather than make them in the conventional way,’ says Huss. ‘Trying to satisfy the safety issues we recognised an external monocoque shell would be better, rather than use a skeleton within the EPS as was normal. This provided more impact travel in the EPS liner and it was lighter. Now many of our competitors make helmets in this way.’
The Octal has a very distinctive shape, with a large exhaust portion at the rear that extends out and back rather than curve round like other helmets on the market. This shape was also informed by safety data, yet Huss recognises that it can’t be about protection at all costs.
‘We never communicate aesthetics, because that is in the eye of the beholder, however we feel responsible for the looks because we know that the safest helmet is the one you actually wear,’ he says. He produces two helmets in the bright green of the Cannondale-drapac pro team. Both are destroyed.
‘These are the helmets worn by Davide Formolo and Toms Skujiņš in their respective crashes recently – watch out, Skujiņš’ has quite a bit of blood on it. Take a look at where the impacts happened.’
Both are in the same spot, exactly where the helmet has been built up at the rear.
‘We have these helmets coming in regularly off these guys and it’s almost oddly reassuring that despite the
crash the helmet is doing its job in the way it was designed. Our helmets are recognised, even criticised, for having a larger back end, but there is a reason for that. There is a reason behind everything we do.’
The cutting edge
Performance rationale is provided by Poc’s second forum of experts, Watts Lab. Its work is usually conducted in a $100million wind-tunnel facility owned by Volvo, with whom Poc is a close working partner. Some of the products this brain trust has developed are quite intriguing.
‘Let me get Gustav Larsson’s bust,’ says Huss. He brings in a scale model of the Swedish time-triallist’s top half, tucked in his racing position. ‘Swedish Cycling came to us before the London Olympics wanting the fastest helmet for Gustav. He’s known as a very accomplished time-triallist purely because of the way he holds his body. His shoulder span is 38cm and he never moves, so we were able to make him this, the Tempor.’
What Huss produces looks like the helmet that Juggernaught from X-men would wear if he was concerned about his drag coefficient.
‘We can unequivocally say this helmet is the fastest in the world if you are a similar build to Gustav Larsson and don’t move your head at all. It tooks hours of CFD drag analysis and without the Watts Lab
‘We feel responsible for the looks because we know that the safest helmet is the one you actually wear’
would never have been possible. Although he missed out in London, Larsson won the Swedish National TT Championships four years running.’
Poc’s work at the top end of the sport extends beyond national boundaries, thanks to its long-term sponsorship of Cannondale-drapac.
‘We’ve always been productfocused – get the best athletes in it and let the products do the talking,’ says Phillips. ‘We did this because we wanted to build a trustworthy brand. To do that you need to gain trust from the most trustworthy people, so we considered plenty of pro teams before we went with Jonathan Vaughters’ set-up. He manages it in a unique way and our attitudes suit each other.
‘They have very strict protocols for concussion and emphasise rider safety and sustainability. This year we moved on to provide all their kit – we are looking forward to developing with them as it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Their feedback is another invaluable resource to draw from when developing our products.’
That Poc now supplies the entire kit for Cannondale-drapac is a statement of the company’s intent, and Phillips says the company wants to continue forging into the road market. ‘There are so many areas we can explore to make the sport safer and performance better,’ he says. ‘The road market is very traditional, so it’s not easy to enter. Now we’re a serious player in it we’ll continue to try and innovate and influence the market, just as we have already. Like I said, it’s our Swedishness that is the key.’
Cyclist ’s visit is coming to an end and it’s time for a late lunch. ‘What’s on the menu?’ We ask Phillips. He looks at us incredulously. ‘Uh, meatballs of course.’ Sam Challis is editorial assistant at Cyclist and enjoys a swede now and then
‘We’ve always been product-focused – get the best athletes in it and let the product do the talking’
The Swedes love their light, as demonstrated in the airy surroundings of Poc’s Stockholm HQ
Above: 3D-printed versions of Poc’s helmet designs line one wall in the main meeting room
Left and below: Poc has sponsored the helmets and sunglasses of the Cannondale-drapac Worldtour team for a number of seasons now, but this year moved to provide the riders’ entire outfits
Left and below: Poc regularly receives destroyed helmets back from CannondaleDrapac following crashes. ‘We welcome the opportunity to receive them because it confirms that our development methods work,’ says head of product development Oscar Huss
Left: Although the bulk of production is completed elsewhere, prototype and sample products are made at Poc HQ, then tested by employees on their regular lunchtime rides
Below: In its relatively short history Poc has won nearly 60 industry and design awards