Back in 2001 Chris Leatt was a registrar at the Western Cape’s Tygerberg Academic Hospital and halfway to qualifying as a neurosurgeon.

Then came a life-changing event that was to thrust him into the very different world of protective gear for extreme sports.

Leatt was witness to the death of Alan Selby, a motorcycle rider in an enduro (cross country) event. It was a week after his then four-year-old son Mathew had begun riding a bike and it made him determined to find a way of reducing the risk of major neck injuries.

His solution was a neck brace. "Developing it took over my life," says Leatt. His dedication finally paid off in 2004, when the first commercial version of the brace was sold in SA.

"Looking back, our first neck brace was fairly primitive," says Leatt.

And it had not come cheaply. "It cost us R14m to get the project up and running," says Leatt.

"We raised the money from family and friends on the understanding that we would obtain a listing on the US Nasdaq exchange, which we did."

Though his first neck brace may have been a bit basic, it opened the door to far bigger things for Leatt Corp. Its first really big break came at the Eicma motorcycle show in Milan in 2006.

The neck brace caught the attention of car and motorcycle manufacturer BMW. The company was, says Leatt, looking for a solution to the high number of deaths and injuries being sustained by its riders in the Dakar Rally.

"BMW gave us the use of its crash test labs in Munich," says Leatt. "We were able to show that our device was the only one being tested that could reduce neck injuries."

Leatt went on to develop a neck brace for BMW and a version of it for Austrian motorcycle producer KTM. "They both gave us great credibility," says Leatt.

So impressed was BMW that it offered to buy the patent. "We turned it down and have since gone on to sell 1m neck braces," says Leatt.

Though the neck brace was the making of Leatt Corp, the company has gone on to diversify into a wide range of protective gear, such as body armour, helmets, knee braces and apparel.

All are the product of research and development undertaken at Leatt Lab in the Cape Town suburb of Durbanville.

Leatt’s products have been showered with awards and are today in demand worldwide. It is an indication of the quality of the company’s products that its highest sales figures are in the demanding US market, where it has a distribution centre in Santa Clarita, California.

Leatt, who lives on a farm near Stellenbosch, is always up for a new challenge. "I am writing a book about our company," he says.

He also has a challenging hobby. "I fly helicopters," he says. "And I am a senior helicopter flying instructor."

Leatt has big ambitions for the company he founded. "We are still young and can get far bigger."

But he won’t be going it alone this time. "The company is now run by a born CEO, Sean Macdonald," says Leatt.

"I now have a life again."

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