Mattan Shani almost drowned in freak currents – but his brush with death inspired a wristband that could save many lives.
It inflates in seconds into a foil balloon filled with eight liters of hydrogen foam.
That’s more than enough to keep an average adult (85 kilograms/187 pounds) afloat in an emergency until help arrives.
The mechanism is remarkably small — weighing just 20 grams (less than ¾ ounce) — and tucks away, unobtrusively, into what looks like nothing more than a tennis player’s sweatband.
Mattan’s father, Noam Shani, a former fighter pilot turned engineer and high-tech entrepreneur, resolved to create a wearable buoyancy aid as he sat with his son, then aged 25, recovering in the hospital after his ordeal almost six years ago.
He was adamant that the device should be attractive and fashionable, so that people would want to wear it.
There was already something on the market that did a similar job – a device called Kingii – which is about the size of a wallet.
Noam Shani spent three years trying, in vain, to identify a chemical process that would take up far less space and would be more effective at saving lives.
He teamed up with fellow entrepreneurs Eldad Erel and Omri Dagan and in 2021 they founded Neomare, based in Kfar Hess, central Israel.
“Two years ago we met up with some very smart people in a laboratory here in Israel together with some very creative Russian advisers,” said Erel, the company’s CEO.
The right chemistry
That led to the breakthrough. They hit upon a chemical reaction that did exactly what they wanted. It works with tiny quantities of a fluid and a powder that are stored in separate chambers.
A swimmer in trouble presses the button, mixing the two together, and filling a balloon with a warm (30C/86F) and safe form of hydrogen.
There’s no secret to the chemicals they use – an ionic hydride and a borohydride, for those who understand these things — but Neomare has patented the combination, which means nobody else can use it.
The wristband, branded as LifeSaver, contains 8 grams of chemicals and a 12g balloon that can hold 8 liters of foam. It inflates in 20 seconds and is single-use.
The Kingii, its closest rival, weighs 168g, and inflates a 4-liter balloon in two seconds using a replaceable cartridge of carbon dioxide.
Erel is convinced that ultimately size will matter. “It needs to be fashionable,” he says. “We looked around for a product that did what we wanted, but we found only one and it was too bulky.
“We want our target audience, most of them 30 or below, to take it with them into the sea. Look at the beach and there’s almost no clothing, so it has to be a fashion item.”
Saving the world
Neomare is a small startup, reliant so far on its founders and crowdfunding to develop its product, and determined to sell direct to consumers rather than via middlemen.
The LifeSaver will be sold for $59 in stores worldwide from September 2024, says Erel, with the confidence of a man who will not let a deadline slip. The company aims to produce a million of them in its first year.
Neomare says anyone who goes into the water for fun or for work is a potential buyer.
Erel says that he feels the company’s ROI (return on investment) will be in lives saved.
The World Health Organization says 236,000 people drown every year. It’s one of the leading causes of death globally for children and young people, and many survivors of a near-drowning can suffer long-term brain and lung damage.
Erel has a line from the Talmud prominently displayed on the Neomare website, that whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.
But he wants to do better.
“I’m on a mission from God,” he says. “When I get three testimonials — three, not one — from people whose lives have been saved with our product, I will say thank you, I have accomplished my mission.”
‘I couldn’t save myself’
Mattan Shani shares that vision. He was a finance student when he nearly drowned, and now he works as VP finance and administration at Neomare, helping to turn a dream into reality.
“We want to know that we can help people in my situation,” he says.
He was with friends at Habonim Beach when no lifeguard was on duty.
“It wasn’t very deep, but we went in a whirlpool, a kind of a vortex, and we couldn’t get back to the coast,” he recalls. “The sea kept pushing us out, no matter how hard we tried to swim.
“I started swallowing water. I had no energy left to keep my head above water. I felt dizzy and almost fainted. Eventually somebody saved my life and took me back to the beach.”
He lost consciousness and his friends called an ambulance.
“One of my last thoughts was that I didn’t have any energy, I couldn’t do anything to save myself,” he says.
Thankfully he suffered no serious harm and made a complete recovery.
“When I woke up, my parents were standing next to my bed in the emergency room. At this point, my dad decided that he must do something in order to prevent this kind of thing happening.”
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