Lisa Leonard has always been a runner. Her day job was working for the military as a signal officer, and then after that as a congressional liaison — but early in the morning and late in the evening she ran.
Over the course of her running life, Leonard has run in 13 marathons, including the Cape Cod Marathon and the Boston Marathon. These days she is retired, and has turned her attention to being an inventor and entrepreneur, having created the Dusk 2 Dawn (D2D) safety device for runners.
The idea for the device came to her on a snowy morning in January 2013 while training for the upcoming Boston Marathon. She began thinking about her safety, and the options runners like her had for reflective equipment. She didn’t like any of the reflective vests or light-up bands that most running stores carry, finding them too uncomfortable. That’s when the idea dawned on her to make her own device. And she embarked on a long journey to make it safer for runners to run late at night or early in the morning.
Leonard started out on Alibaba, an online commerce company based in China. She purchased a bag of LED lights and reflective plastic, and began gluing them together to create a prototype of the yet-to-be-named D2D.
Her goal was to make something lightweight and transferable to other pieces of clothing that, above all, had to be illuminated, fluorescent, and reflective.
Alibaba had been helpful in finding the materials to make her device, but vendors on the site wanted to know what she was making. Fearing her idea might be stolen, and unable to sign a nondisclosure agreement with anyone on the site, Leonard made sure to buy the different parts she needed from separate vendors.
Finally, with all her materials and supplies in hand, Leonard crafted a triangular patch that was bright orange and had lights glued to the back. One of her prototypes had safety pins for attaching it, and the other had magnets. Leonard preferred the easily detachable magnets to the pins, but found out magnets might be an issue with children. She heard about several lawsuits involving children who had swallowed magnets and required surgery to have them removed.
Sticking with safety pins, Leonard assembled about about 50 of the devices before getting burned out. “Fifty of them were hard to make — after a year, I realized there’s no way I can manufacture these things myself,” she said. Now, feeling confident in her design, she headed for the United States Patent Office in Alexandria, Va., where she found a patent attorney who used to work in the patent office and walked her through the process. After nearly two years of filling out documents, and being denied twice, Leonard finally got her patent in January 2016.
With her patent in hand, Leonard’s next step was finding someone to manufacture her device. She wanted to have her device manufactured in the United States, but said she couldn’t afford it. She sent out emails to two of the U.S.’s largest outdoor running gear manufacturers, Night Ize and Nathan Sports, to see if they would take on her device. Neither wanted to, but an engineer at Nathan Sports got her in contact with Wei Guo Solutions in China, which liked the idea and sent her several designs for the device. Leonard was able to sign a nondisclosure agreement with Wei Guo, which is now her exclusive manufacturer. “That’s really important that you protect your patent,” she said, referring to manufacturers who create knockoff bootleg versions of other people’s products. Leonard’s design went through numerous iterations before she ended up with the finished product. In the end, she had a dozen different designs made with all kinds of lights, pins, and reflective tape. The final design is a bright orange triangle that pins onto clothing so as to be transferable. It weighs one ounce, reflects light up to 500 feet, is water-resistant, and has six rechargeable LED lights that are visible from 1,100 feet away. Leonard chose the triangular design because in her mind it symbolizes caution.
Over the past year, Leonard has been promoting her device through word of mouth, and is looking to expand into social media, even hiring a social media consultant to improve her website and optimize Facebook. She currently sells the D2D device at the Green Room and SBS, the Grain Store, both in Vineyard Haven, and the B-Strong gym in Oak Bluffs. Customers can also buy the D2D device online at dusk2dawnsafety.com.
Leonard will be attending her first running show in Washington, D.C., at the Cherry Blossom 10-mile run and 5K walk. She will be set up at a booth with her two mannequins, nicknamed Dusty and Dawn, to promote and sell her device.
Even though her product is complete and she has been selling it at running stores, Leonard still has ideas for improving it, such as having a Martha’s Vineyard imprint on the front.
Leonard found success in smaller markets with independent running stores, but looking ahead, she wants a company to license D2D, feeling it is the best way for her to sell more devices and get a return on her almost six-year investment. For her to get her product onto the shelves of big stores, she would have to hire a salesperson to go out on the road. On a weekend trip around Massachusetts, Leonard went to small running stores who agreed to sell her device, but said she “won’t get anywhere” unless she can break into the big stores.
Looking back on the entire process, Leonard remembers the challenge, but is happy with where the device has gotten to, and is hopeful with where it will go. “It’s a long haul,” she said. “I came up with the idea in 2012, and I’m just starting to sell them … to license it would be awesome.”