Ten years ago, Australian Shane Williams invented a vest to cool down football players and improve their performance on the field. Today his simple invention is helping commandos in sun-baked Iraq, burn victims, heart patients and thoroughbred horses.
The Butterfly Effect, described by James Gleick in his bestseller on chaos theory, is “an image of predictability giving way to pure randomness”. This is one way of explaining the journey undertaken by Arctic Heat, a small Australian company.
It started 10 years ago with a football player’s complaints about the weather and led to the development of a unique cooling vest. Made with hi-tech wool and strips of a “secret” gel, activated in cold water, it has fluttered off into a kaleidoscope of industries.
Worn by English soccer players, South African and Australian cricketers, and over 1,000 Olympians at Athens in 2004, it has also improved the lot of Korean rescue workers, injured horses, multiple-sclerosis sufferers, burns victims and heart-attack patients.
Another key market is the military. The Australian defence department has purchased more than 2,000 cooling vests for its troops in Iraq. The vests are also being trialled by the US Army.
“People ring every day and I think, I would’ve never thought of marketing in that area,” says Shane Williams, Arctic Heat’s managing director. He’s in Singapore, on the first leg of a world tour to shore up distributors and manufacturers for his products. The US and British military are just two on his list of meetings.
The company is based in Burleigh Heads, a Queensland town famous for its killer surf, towering pines and searing blue skies. The area is also home to the Billabong surfwear company. The laid-back atmosphere of Burleigh is reflected in the attitudes of Williams, a keen surfer, and Sue Wehlow, his business manager.
The office is in a light and airy warehouse, and the operation is surprisingly simple. Leonie Parker, jokingly referred to as the “mad cutter”, works part-time; sewing is outsourced to six seamstresses.
The walls are lined with photographs of people in vests, from cricketer Shane Warne to a young girl horribly burnt by an exploding boat. Wehlow, whose son packs boxes at the warehouse part time, custom-makes vests for ill children. This morning, she and Parker look at a picture of a small boy with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. He wears a body cast and has a heart condition, and his parents are looking for ways to keep him cool.
Humans have a core temperature of between 36.7C to 37.2C degrees. When a sick child suffers from heat stress, this rises. As overheating is potentially fatal, up to 80 per cent of the body’s systems kick in to bring down the temperature. The bulk of blood moves to the skin and releases perspiration, which evaporates, cooling the skin and, in turn, cooling the blood, which travels back to stabilise the body’s core temperature.
For elite athletes, this movement of blood is crucial. Williams, 47, who has worked in sports medicine for 20 years, says that in cases of overheating, the blood, instead of working in the muscles clearing out lactate and waste products, is at skin level. Lactate left in the muscle also means recovery takes longer. By wearing a cooling vest, skin temperature and heart rate are lowered. Williams says a player who wears a vest before competing has a serious advantage over one who has not cooled before. “My elite performance level might be 30 to 40 per cent better than yours for a longer period,” he says.
He realised the effects of heat stress in 1996, while head trainer for the Brisbane Lions, an Australian Rules football team. Andrew Bews had joined the team from Victoria and found training in Brisbane’s humidity almost unbearable. Looking around for a cooling aid, Williams found a vest with ice packs, worn by 1996 Atlanta Olympic athletes before racing. “It was like walking around with an extra six kilos; heavy, really uncomfortable and that was the state-of-the-art technology in ice vests!” says Williams. Four years later, he came up with the Arctic Heat vest, cutting edge because of its weight (800g to 1kg when “activated”) and cooling materials. Athletes wouldn’t usually wear the vest during competition – although there was much sporting discussion when the Brisbane Lions stepped out in the vests in 2001. A panel beater, however, could work in one all day.
At the warehouse Wehlow lays out a vest which fetches AU$198 (€119). It is lined with a white Sportswool, a hi-tech wicking fabric designed to transfer moisture away from the skin to the front of the garment where it evaporates. The blue mesh exterior has silver stripes filled with a polymer gel which expands when soaked, frozen or heated up. It can hold any temperature for up to two hours.
After the 2002 Bali bombings, many victims were airlifted to Australian hospitals. In burns theatres, the temperature is set at around 39C, to stop infections and reduce bleeding. The stream of victims at Royal Brisbane Hospital made operating conditions difficult. One of the theatre staff, who was a huge Lions fan, had seen the vests. The team was contacted and sent 22 vests to theatre staff.
Months later, Sue Elder, a nursing specialist at Sydney’s Hornsby Hospital, read about this and wondered if the vests could be used on heart attack patients. For years, conventional wisdom was that heart-attack sufferers should lie under a warm blanket. But emerging research suggests cooling is better. This is achieved by using ice cubes, which melt, create wet sheets and aren’t safe around electrical cables; or a large electrical blanket, which costs around AU$70,000 (€43,000). Elder contacted Williams and the two spent three years developing the 12-piece Hornsby Cooling Kit. Last year it was presented to the European Resuscitation Council, a body setting protocols on resuscitation, recognising it as the best cooling device on the market. Plans are now under way for a similar product for underdeveloped babies.
Arctic Heat is also trotting into the equestrian world, beyond its current socks for leg injuries. Parker works with Arabian horses and sees a market for cooling horses and riders competing in endurance races in deserts across the world.
The company has hired a business strategist and Williams says his company is predicted to take off 10-fold in the next year. Uses for the technology appear endless. At a recent barbecue, Williams envisaged the ultimate beer cooler.