In the fall of 2016, Apple launched the first version of AirPods. No one thought to make a case for this small, expensive accessory that felt like a little bar of soap in your hands — slippery not to mention easy to drop, or lose. But who would think to make an accessory for an accessory?? Catalyst created and launched the first case for AirPods and like their other cases, was designed to be waterproof and drop proof with a number of protective features.
Nearly every other case company soon released their own cases for AirPods — but Catalyst’s innovation team created a category that exploded with consumers and the company still has the most durable and waterproof case in their Total Protection Case for Airpods — a TANK for the AirPods Pro that’s waterproof to 330 ft.
For the last decade, companies around the world have tried to knock-off Catalyst’s products and failed. With more than 400 patents and trademarks, Catalyst has invented and launched new products and product categories into the consumer tech market and is still the only company that designs a completely waterproof case for the Apple Watch (waterproof to 300ft) as well as the 12.9” iPad Pro. Their waterproof phone cases boast waterproof protection 5x that of competitors — waterproof to 33ft.
There’s a reason Catalyst brands themselves as an innovation company — not a case company. Their waterproof cases for the iPhone, for example, have 46 component parts.
In addition to the unique design of their products, their founders have an interesting back-story as well. June Lai (a scientist) and business partner Josh Wright (a world-recognized industrial designer) developed their business out of a passion for adventure and the outdoors.
Avid climbers, and climbing partners, both Lai and Wright wanted to capture the beauty of their climbs in Hong Kong, but at the time were using the fragile iPhone 3G. It was too risky to take expensive devices into rugged environments so together, they created the most functionally rugged, but practically flawless products for everyday use of a smartphone.
I&T Today: What do you think people thought of the initial concept of waterproof phone cases and “earbud cases?”
June Lai: Josh and my backgrounds, although very different, compliment each other (his in design and mine in business) and this helped us create our first waterproof case the EscapeCapsule through a Kickstarter campaign.
It was a natural project for us to do as we are both avid rock climbers. Whenever we were at a climbing crag or a waterfall, our phones were tucked away in our bags rather than capturing these moments. This is where our waterproof case for the iPhone concept began.
I&T Today: Tell us about the initial Kickstarter campaign.
JL: People loved this solution as our Kickstarter 30-day campaign nearly doubled its original target of $30,000, by raising $53,943. This success coupled with avid media and blogger interest enabled us to grow and we haven’t stopped since. We now create a Total Protection Waterproof case for every new iPhone that Apple releases.
I&T Today: When did the concept for the AirPods case come into being?
JL: The AirPods case came later in the game. Catalyst already had an established brand name in the market and had built consumer confidence in our products and designs. But at first – reviews appeared to be mixed in the media.
When we launched the first waterproof case for AirPods in April of 2017, CNET’s headline read “This AirPods accessory is strangely awesome.” The Verge, however, was less than complimentary saying they just ‘couldn’t see the selling point.” Good thing the Verge story was a stand-alone.
The positive reviews were overwhelming from the press and from consumers. Competitors were not far beyond launching their own versions and designs of a case for the hottest new accessory. To date, the family of Catalyst AirPods cases are among the top-selling products in our lineup. Apple sold about 60 million Airpods in 2019 and 100 million in 2020. They’re awesome — but they’re also expensive and people want to make sure they’re protected.
Apple recognized the value and in 2019, we designed the first exclusive line of waterproof cases for Apple stores.
I&T Today: What was the most difficult thing about the company’s launch? How did you overcome those challenges?
JL: Definitely getting a break out of the gate. When we started Catalyst, the startup community was relatively new. It was critical upon launching our Kickstarter campaign to ensure our target audience got behind the project. We need to know that what we developed provided value to them.
Josh and I worked in shifts and slept very little while our Kickstarter campaign was live. We were emailing and messaging every tech blog and media outlet we could find. Perseverance paid off and TechCrunch took interest in our innovation. This coverage started to spread like wildfire online and kicked off the conversation among consumers all over the world.
Establishing and building your network:
At the beginning, networking was a challenge. Today the scene is thriving and I would advise aspiring entrepreneurs to get out there and network amongst their peers and learn from others both in what they did well and what they did not do well. This does not mean sales pitches, but meaningful conversations about what is happening in the marketplace, what mistakes you made in the past, and what you learned from that.
Putting together the right team:
Although the Asia Pacific is a breeding ground for entrepreneurs, finding the right talent can be a challenge especially when seeking international experience. My advice is to think outside the box. Why limit your recruitment to one city? Look across the region to find and develop talent. If anything, the last year has taught me that flexible working arrangements are possible.
Be strategic in your planning and your growth:
Know when to say no and be realistic about your capability to achieve targets, the resources it takes and the finances of an opportunity, and how that supports your strategy long term. It is tempting to say yes to every deal that comes your way, but it is imperative to understand how that works towards your long term strategy and goals and to understand that the financial gain can be easy to map out but the cost in terms of time and resources and investment may be harder to map out and you need to assess that to figure out the path to profitability.
I&T Today: What about the market explosion do you feel was attractive to consumers?
JL: We addressed a pain point in our target market. When doing our market research before launching this case we saw there were waterproof bag options but they lacked in features and functionality. There was a demand for a better solution.
Our solution was a slimline clear housing case for the iPhone 4. People loved this as they felt secure when assembling it as they could confirm it was fully sealed before submerging it into water. Our story captured the essence of adventure and fun and our consumers related to it and saw the need for it.
Since Josh is an award-winning industrial designer, we designed and developed the most rugged and waterproof everyday cases on the market. Our R&D process to solve problems led us to truly understand and become experts in this field. It started with one case over a decade ago to address a personal pain point.
I&T Today: How has Catalyst continued to stand above the current market demand for any type of “case” (phone, tablet, earbuds, etc.)
JL: Fast forward to today and Catalyst is a globally recognized leader in our space, with hundreds of product SKUs, distributed and sold in more than 70 countries around the world.
Our design and the reputation for quality products is what continues to keep us on top. We stand behind our designs. We know they work because we personally test them in the most rugged outdoor environments. Knowing not everyone is going to take their devices off a 100-foot waterfall or diving with sea turtles, if they don’t work for us, they’re not good enough for our customers.
We over-engineer our products on purpose. We invest in premium materials for the design. We provide peace of mind in the best protection for people’s devices and that’s what has built confidence and loyalty in our brand.
I&T Today: Can you shed some light about how the injection of Catalyst into hospitals throughout the pandemic showed the true case study for Catalyst technology?
JL: The outstanding benefit to our waterproof cases for iPhones and iPads is they’re able to be completely submerged, washed with soap and water, and sanitized with alcohol-based solutions without degrading the material or fear of damage to the device. Those benefits rose to the top during the pandemic for not just consumers but for a number of businesses that relied on hand-held devices for day-to-day operations.
A perfect example is one of the largest hospital systems in Canada ordered about 500 iPad cases. On the business side, they used the iPad for registration, check-in, tracking, and administrative functions. Physicians and nurses used them for day-to-day recording, patient care, and activity. And as patients were unable to see family or have visitors of any sort during the pandemic, the hospital initiated a program where they would schedule facetime visits with loved ones. But all devices HAD to be cleaned and sanitized in accordance with CDC guidelines and our cases were the only ones that met the standards they needed.
I&T Today: What can you tell us about the company’s patents?
JL: Catalyst is a design and development company known for its unique products and its serial invention. Not only have we won 24 awards for design and innovation since inception, we have more than 400 registered designs and over 60 granted utility patents recorded in jurisdictions around the world, with many more pending.
Our CATALYST® brand is protected in over 45 countries. The trade dress of our iconic and first-of-its-kind case for use with Apple AirPods has been registered in several countries. And we have an extensive catalog of registered copyrights directed to product packaging, instructions, and related artwork. As the experts in waterproof cases, we obsess over all of the details.
I&T Today: Let’s expand on the waterproof design.
JL: Since we have over a decade of expertise in waterproof, we’ve gone through a wide range of design constructions and ended up exploring a number of solutions over the years resulting in a broad IP construction and experience in making some of the highest performance products in the world that meet our standards for testing and evaluation, through a detailed understanding of construction and design and performance details.
We do 100% testing of the product’s waterproof rating and we custom design and build test fixtures/processes that we validate via third parties. For waterproofness, we do not just follow an AQL process to randomly check the product. We build an in-line test process so that every unit that ships is waterproof via in-line testing – if it doesn’t pass, we don’t ship it. We know our products look simple but the complexity in manufacturing is a challenge that no one else is able to match. This is a critical part of the consumer experience.
I&T Today: Does Catalyst have any plans to penetrate the GPS-tracking space, e.g. Apple’s AirTags?
JL: Yes. We’re giving you a bit of a sneak peek here, but by the end of summer we will be launching a series of cases for AirTags. Our innovation team has been working on a number of designs for different applications and use cases that we think will be hugely popular with customers.
Given over a decade of expertise in making sure a device is fully protected with a waterproof and drop-proof case while ensuring key important features remain fully functional, such as acoustics and sound transmission, we’ve got some unique solutions that build upon our experience and ensure you can use your AirTag in multiple situations where you really want it to be fully protected. We’ve perfected our technology and expertise and even if you review our design and utility patents, you can see that we’ve evolved to constantly improve and explore how we can make every detail better. Now, our team is very excited to have applied their collective ideas, knowledge, and understanding of how to build the best product solutions for AirTag.
We’ll be sharing some of those ideas with you soon.