High up on the top floor of a run-down industrial brick building in Charlestown sits Emily Thibodeau’s workshop. It takes but one good look around to see this is not your posh, Kendall Square-inspired startup.
There are no fancy tools and gleaming workspaces, just well-used compressors and cabinets. And Thibodeau might not be there at all if it weren’t for an aging industrial paint oven that was in search of a new owner.
Thibodeau runs a bike repair shop, Hub Bicycle , but with the oven she has a new business that should give her instant cred with the Innovation set: painting bicycles with a special reflective powder coating that turns ordinary frames into powerful reflectors — entire bicycles that glow with the intensity of a stadium light when hit by headlights.
Starting next week, Thibodeau will offer the reflective coating via her new venture, Hub Powderworks, in a color she calls Zakim grey, for $529 ($599 if shipped within the United States).
With bike commuting soaring in popularity, Thibodeau’s service is among several clever ways devoted cyclists are going beyond standard bike lights and reflective strips to make riding at night safer — about one-third of cyclist deaths occur when it is dark.
Thibodeau is using a new generation of highway paint patented by Indianapolis-based Halo Coatings. The technology uses hundreds of thousands of tiny spheres, embedded in the top layer of the coat, to reflect light back to its source — instead of diffusing it, as regular paint does. In San Francisco, Mission Bicycle Company is using the Halo coating on one of its bike models that retails for $1,245.
Other tinkerers have coated bicycles with solar-activated paint that creates a glow-in-the-dark effect or have strung along the frame LED lights that are powered by pedaling.
For the adventurous, there are online instructions for mixing your own glass-bead-based “highway paint’’ for frame and fender.
Thibodeau has been exploring safety measures for years, but the breakthrough came from a friend and customer, Joshua Zisson. A lawyer in Boston who specializes in cases involving cyclists, Zisson had struck up a relationship with Halo Coatings years ago in his quest to make reflective paint more readily available for bicycles, eventually becoming a partner in the company.
“Almost all of my cases involve a version of an accident in which the driver did not see the bike rider,” Zisson said. “I never understood why highway paint was not on every bike already. The safety benefits of this technology are tremendous.”
Frustrated by the lack of interest from larger manufacturers, Thibodeau and Zisson started to wonder. Was this something a small shop such as Thibodeau’s could offer? What would it take? What would it cost?
Enter the powder-coating oven that a friend of Thibodeau’s was looking to off-load. Powder coating is industrial-strength paint that is baked onto the surface to create a hard finish that can stand up to the kind of banging around a bike endures.
“When that became available, I decided to take a leap,” she said.
The Maine native opened her bike shop, which is located in Cambridge, with savings and a small family loan. She continued in her shrewd ways to create the painting business, buying all her equipment used, and finding low-cost workspace in Charlestown. She licensed the paint and a paint gun from Halo Coatings and started Hub Powderworks.
“Bicycle frames are a little harder to coat than car fenders or highway signs because of the round surfaces and various thicknesses, so it took a few months of experimentation to get to the quality we wanted,” Thibodeau explained. “But overall, this is a pretty cool technology.”
Despite the hefty price tag — driven by the cost of the paint and the labor involved in stripping and treating frames — Thibodeau and Zisson believe there is a considerable market for the coating in a region with tens of thousands of devoted bike riders. They are also considering selling bike accessories coated with the reflective paint.
“I often heard from manufacturers that people are not willing to pay for this added safety feature,” Zisson said. “I guess now we will find out.”