“I wasn’t trying to start a company. Honestly, I was just volunteering and helping [LSU] out.”
That volunteer effort for Jack Karavich was centered around getting college football season up and running again during the pandemic. But there was an engineering and design problem standing in the way: players couldn’t adequately breathe with the required face shields in their helmets.
“It’s really like pulling a plastic bucket over your head. Helmets already limit a lot of the airflow and breathing because of the way they’re designed,” Karavich told Hypepotamus.
Karavich had recently relocated to New Orleans from Atlanta when he connected with the Louisiana State football team and heard about the design problem. With his engineering background and a “car-full of football helmets,” Karavich started working in his garage on possible options to improve the design of the COVID-safe helmet.
“I ended up mocking up an incredibly primitive airflow system from old computer, hardware, and 3D printer parts, tubes from Home Depot, duct tape, and nine-volt batteries,” he said.
That prototype led Karavich to build a “small factory prototyping facility” and 3D printing studio in his garage to produce “air-conditioned helmets.”
Those helmets quickly earned fans across LSU, the wider SEC league, the NCAA, and the NFL, ultimately spinning into the startup Tigeraire and its first product, the Cyclone.
It also caught the eye of one of the nation’s Tier 1 VC firms, General Catalyst.
The Massachusetts-based firm led Tigeraire’s $1.5 million seed round, with Atlanta Tech Village’s co-founder David Lightburn and others joining in.
Tigeraire’s momentum, Karavich said, is due to the fact that the product found market fit within several unique industries quickly and provided “immediate benefit” to users.
“What you see is a lot of these tech startups out there come up with brilliant things, and all the engineers are high fiving because they’ve just cracked the code on something, solved this thing that no one had ever done before, or created this novel algorithm…and then they kind of pause and say okay, who’s gonna use it?”
The design helps increase comfort, focus, endurance, and responsiveness, according to the startup’s website.
For Karavich, Tigeraire’s first product brings more functionality and safety to the wearable tech market.
“The wearable mentality about how do we collect data and provide a more connected experience to people normally assumes you are wearing some type of token or tracker around your wrist,” Karavich added. “What I’ve come to realize is that wearable market is exciting, but it still doesn’t have like huge peak adoption…there’s this mentality of ‘what is this [device] doing for me now?’”
To answer that question, Karavich said early on the startup didn’t even have a pitch deck. Instead, they just handed over a helmet and let it do the talking.
The team is currently working on a full batting helmet for baseball and softball players, which will be their first helmet built from the ground up. Also in the works is a mass-manufactured version of the product, which will help them break into the massive high school and youth sports market by this spring.
What It Means For Louisiana
Building Tigeraire in Louisiana is a bit of a homecoming for Karavich, who earned his MBA at Tulane University and married into a big LSU family.
The team now has offices in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, with team members distributed across Louisiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
For Karavich, it is slightly surprising that Tigeraire is one of an incredibly small number of Louisiana startups to catch the attention of large VC firms. But he thinks it is part of the growing momentum in the area. Just this week Levelset, a construction-focused FinTech from New Orleans, was acquired by construction software giant Procore for $500 million.
For Tigeraire, the new seed round will be instrumental in expanding its products outside of Tiger Stadium. Next stop: construction sites.
Tigeraire is scaling in the industrial space with hard hat airflow devices to keep workers safe. That includes ultimately growing into the “industrial IoT” space to “improve the overall experience of a worker’s life.” Karavich said they are set to ship out product at the beginning of next year.