While it sounds obvious, wrecking a motorcycle usually hurts. I've broken wrists. Broken a collarbone. Lost a little skin. Cracked a helmet, woke up in an ambulance.

Losing traction in a turn and sliding out typically less dangerous. Keep your arms and legs off the ground, slide rather than tumble... not so bad.

But it's hard to avoid injury when you highside, when the rear wheel slides laterally, suddenly regains traction, the motorcycle flips... and the rider gets launched up and over. 

Like this:

Slide out (lowside) and if you're wearing leathers, the worst injury tends to be the damage to your pride.

Highside, though, and between the initial impact and the injuries that can result from tumbling across the ground, limbs flailing uncontrollably... unfortunately, leathers aren't much help.

Until now.

Dainese (pronounced "Dai-Nay-Zay") has been making protective apparel for decades. (I owned several sets of Dainese race leathers in the 1980s and '90s.)  

Dainese first came up with the idea of a "wearable airbag system" for motorcycle riders in the mid-1990s. But the technological challenges were immense: The system had to be effective, had to be reliable, had to deploy in milliseconds... yet it couldn't negatively affect rider performance.

Put me in a bubble and I'll certainly be safer... but I won't be able to actually ride.)

Years of development later, Dainese has introduced D-Air, a wearable airbag system that deploys in milliseconds to significantly reduce crash impact -- and save lives.

The D-Air ski system has been used by pro skiers like Lindsey Vonn and Sofia Goggia. In 2018, wearable airbags became mandatory equipment for all MotoGP riders. 

Which is great... but  now D-Air technology is available in jackets for everyday riders. (Even though I haven't wrecked a motorcycle in years, I've ordered one.) 

And later this year Dainese will launch the Smart Jacket, a D-Air product that can be worn above or under other apparel, making it even more convenient for everyday riders and commuters.

All of which made it a great time to talk to Cristiano Silei, the CEO of Dainese Group, about how a company can maintain double-digit growth rates -- while also spending considerable time and money developing the next wave of products.

You're willing to accept an extremely long product development runway.

Yes, but of course that depends on the innovation.

When you look at the D-Air, it's an industry changing innovation. Something like that only happens once in a generation.

Back in the 1990s, when anyone from the company talked to airbag manufacturers, people laughed at the idea of making an airbag into a wearable device. It was an entirely new level of innovation, requiring new thinking on conforming an airbag into a wearable harness, to protect the entire body instead of just inflating some balloons...

So there were two major levels of innovation. One was to transform the "balloon" into a wearable, engineered surface. It's not a balloon. It's an engineered surface connected by micro-filaments that let us control the width and surface covered by the bag. The result is armor, made of air, tailored to the body, that is incredibly hard when inflated. Ours is the only system that does that.

But that's only half of the innovation. The other was to design an electronic platform and algorithm to inflate the system when needed...  and not inflate when not needed, which is equally as important.

The system has to work when you need it but not when you don't. 

That required you to be a technology company, not just an apparel company.

If you think about it, much of the motorcycle apparel industry is based on attaching leather and stitching it. Before Lino Dainese decided he wanted to create the company Dainese, everyone was basically wearing leather pajamas. (Laughs.)

That's when Dianese came out with true innovations. Like the back protector. Or gloves that protected you from more than the cold, gloves with composites, carbon fiber, fiberglass titanium, titanium blocks in the shoulders so when a rider hits the ground he or she slides instead of sticking to the tarmac and twisting the shoulder, which happens with plastic devices...

That means you have to constantly expand employee skill sets.

Absolutely. D-Air required a brand new team and a brand new set of skills.

That's not unusual for us. We don't think of Dainese as a garment manufacturer. We're an innovation company.

The question that animates us, that's at the core of our corporate culture, is, "What is needed?"  We not concerned with what is already there. We look for what is not there. We start from the future and we go backward, designing things that are not available today but will someday become the norm. 

The first time I saw a back protector I thought it looked odd. Then I realized it was brilliant. And now every road racer wears one.

Absolutely. Many people don't realize that was us. (Laughs.)

At heart, we're an innovation company. What do we need to do? How do we learn to do it? Then we put people in place to learn.

For example, we collaborated with MIT on a NASA suit project. Obviously we are not selling space suits; there isn't much of a market for those, at least not yet.

But we invested our time and energy  because the process of learning new things lets you learn what you eventually might apply to your products... or that might lead to a new idea or new invention. Unless you develop and flex your muscles, you will never be able to increase your strength.

Which is why you got involved in America's Cup.

Three years ago, the Emirates New Zealand team asked us to help protect their athletes while still allowing for maximum flexibility and movement.

We said, "Gosh, that's what we love to do." Together we came up with a solution, and they won the America's Cup. We love to learn new things about the body under extreme conditions. It can be 350 kilometers per hour on a racetrack in MotoGP, or 160 km/h on a downhill ski slope, or doing 55 knots on a sailing yacht, or even in space.

We learn more, we get ideas... and many of those ideas eventually find their way into solutions for everyday use. 

For example?

On the NASA project we learned about a concept we now apply to our touring gear: Lines of non-extension. Ergonomic research has determined there are a number of lines on the body that you can trace that don't change their length, regardless of the movement of the body. You can do any movement you want, and those lines don't change.

We what we learned about non-extension to design touring gear that fits you perfectly while still allowing you to perform any movements you want or need on a motorcycle.

That's just one tactical example of how we can take learnings from a completely different place and introduce them into a product. 

One of the toughest things for a company to do is embrace a long-term focus while still achieving consistent short-term growth.

You have to do both if you want to build a company that lasts.

Plenty of companies only only focus on the short term. That's understandable, but generally speaking not a good strategy, especially true for a company like ours where innovation is in our DNA.

If we only focused on the short term we would lose that spirit of innovation. And over time we would lose some of our best people.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in rolling out D-Air technology to consumers?

There are two basic audiences: Serious, more experienced motorcyclists like yourself, and then people who are somewhat more casual.

For the experienced rider, the key adoption point is price. Consider this device like buying a good quality helmet.

As the saying goes, "I don't have a $300 head, so why would I buy a $300 helmet?"

(Laughs.) Exactly. Which is why the helmet you have cost three times that. The same is true for your body. You don't have a $300 body.

But at the same time, to make up a number, a price point like $2,000 might be too high, even for serious riders. 

Our goal is to find that sweet spot, a cost level that experienced riders can wrap their heads around. Just like with a high-quality helmet. That's a hurdle we will overcome.

The second audience is the casual or more occasional rider. For example, in Europe many people use a two-wheeler to get to work. For them, the issue isn't just price. We also have to make it simple and convenient to wear. It has to be less invasive.

They're already wearing a helmet. But they're not as familiar with wearing gloves, proper shoes, leather jackets... so the product has to seem natural and more intuitive. And we're getting there.

A question that many readers will find interesting: You were with Ducati, including as the CEO, for years. What was your approach to taking over a different company, especially in the first 90 days?

I feel I knew what to do from the very first day.

Normally you need to reflect, ponder, figure things out, gain some experience with a new company and new culture... but with Dainese it was like magic: It's like I knew, from the beginning, what needed to be done.

My focus was to get to know the team, to energize and motivate people, and then to write the plan for what would happen. Most of my energy was invested in figuring those things out and developing a coherent plan. We've been following that plan.

And now we're developing a new 5-year plan.

Keep in mind there's nothing magical about 5 years. The time horizon itself doesn't matter. What matters is that you know where you are going.  

I like to start with the end in mind: Look into the future, then work backwards.

That's what I focused on when I came in, and so far, so good. (Laughs.)

Published on: Apr 1, 2019
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