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The Odd Couple: How June Lai and Josh Wright Launched Catalyst Into an Industry-Leading Tech Company

people sitting down near table with assorted laptop computers

Eleven years ago, Catalyst launched a Kickstarter campaign that has evolved it into a successful, consumer tech company, revolutionizing the use of our smart devices.

For the last decade, companies around the world have tried to knock-off Catalyst’s products, and failed. With more than 400 patents and trademarks, Catalyst has invented and launched new products and product categories into the consumer tech market, and is still the only company that designs a completely waterproof case for the Apple Watch (waterproof to 330ft) as well as the 12.9” iPad Pro.  Their waterproof phone cases boast waterproof protection 5x that of competitors – waterproof to 33ft.

As a true-startup, Catalyst branded itself more than a decade ago as an innovation company – not just a case company. Their waterproof cases for the iPhone, for example, have 46 component parts. 

Meet June Lai and Josh Wright

In addition to the unique design of their products, their founders have an interesting back-story. June Lai (a scientist) and business partner Josh Wright (a world recognized industrial designer) developed their business out of a passion for adventure and the outdoors. 

Avid climbers, and climbing partners, both Lai and Wright wanted to capture the beauty of their climbs in Hong Kong, but at the time were using the fragile iPhone 3G. It was too risky to take expensive devices into rugged environments so together, they created the most functionally rugged, but practically flawless products for everyday use of a smartphone.

Disrupt Magazine: How would you describe your balance as business partners and how did you know the partnership was a good fit?

June Lai: It was actually a natural fit for us to go into business together. We had developed a mutual trust and respect for one another through climbing. Catalyst was not the first project we took on together. We worked collaboratively on a much smaller scale, but meshed well so we were confident this would be a great partnership. 

As leaders and entrepreneurs, one of the signs of a successful relationship is knowing and accepting your strengths and weaknesses as well as those of your partner. Our backgrounds are very complimentary with Josh in industrial design and mine in business. It just works.

Together we took a chance and ended up creating a product that became a disruptor in the industry – the most rugged and waterproof everyday case for iPhone on the market. 

Even when we disagree, we always come together to create the best solution for the business out of respect for each other, our staff and the partnerships we’ve built across the globe.

Josh Wright: It’s true you need to be careful going into business with friends. But after countless hours climbing together, we really developed a unique level of trust. I moved to Hong Kong to experience the beauty and adventure – and to design.

When I was training at ArtCenter, I was encouraged to look for a business partner. When you have someone who focuses on the financials, you can focus on making design work for the business. That’s a big part of what makes our partnership work.

We share common interests, and the desire and drive to succeed. Coupled with our common pain point this led us to develop our first product, and the rest is history. 

Disrupt Magazine: What challenges have you faced together? How have you overcome them?

JL: The world is vastly different than it was two years ago. The way we do business and speak to our customers is different. Consumer buying habits and expectations have changed. Many companies did not survive the last 18 months as challenges compounded in global logistics & supply chain, demand dropped for some goods, revenue declined, and some companies did not adjust.

We however have come out stronger, due to our strategic leadership and the ability to adjust to market changes in privacy, marketing and working with new and existing channels to focus on invention, innovation and design – not just on products.

In 2020 every company was tested. Catalyst was not isolated from the fallout but was prepared to quickly shift the focal point as the only protective case on the market for electronic devices to be 100% washable and able to be disinfected in accordance with CDC guidelines. This focus became the most important feature for consumers and critical in the B2B space where hospitals and health care facilities turned to Catalyst for protection of handheld devices. 

JW: Anyone who has started a business – knows that in itself is a challenge. I agree with June that COVID presented us with the most significant challenge of our journey, but I’m going to present another challenge that takes the power of our collective skills to keep driving Catalyst forward.

At a surface level – we work in a very saturated space. Cases are a dime a dozen – so we had to find a way to stand out, create better/stronger products, remain relevant and build something sustainable.

We’re not a case company. We’re a design and innovation company. We’ve spent the last 11  years creating designs and inventing products that cannot be duplicated. Many have tried.

We’ve invented product categories like the FIRST ever case for AirPods, and our waterproof cases for iPhone are 5x more waterproof than any other everyday case on the market. These cases have 46 component parts.  

These designs, our development and innovation, coupled with the ability to educate the consumer and market the value of what we offer was a constant challenge in our early years.  But we’ve built a premium brand and are 100% invested in growing it the right way.

Disrupt Magazine: How do your backgrounds add to the notion of a true “power couple?”

JL: Our different backgrounds have helped us solve problems together logically and creatively. Our approach is different. I approach problem solving with research and data. That’s the scientist in me. My background is very diverse in terms of negotiating deals, working with partners on analysis, strategy and market positioning.

JW: I look to solve problems creatively through design – but part of it for me is also assessment of the risks we’re taking – cost vs benefit. 

I came from the most rigorous training program in the industry for creating industrial designs and am proudly one of the top designers in the world for coming up with commercially viable products. 

They taught us in school how to use design for business but were advised to seek out someone that can match our talent on the business side. I come up with visionary products and branding and June integrates them into a functional company.

It’s a dynamic that works well for us and has proven successful.

The Kickstarter Heard ‘Round the World

The notion of crowdfunding through Kickstarter at the time Lai and Wright first created Catalyst was still new and not well-tested. “Yet, it quickly became hugely popular as the most innovative and successful platform for crowdfunding,” Lai explained. 

Our designs were not something that could be self funded. The tooling required to create the plastic parts is quite complicated and expensive. Also, there are several post injection processes needed to assemble all of the parts into one precise watertight finished product. We came to Kickstarter as we felt it was the best avenue for us to raise our target of $30,000 USD over 30 days to get our first case –  the EscapeCapsule – into production.”

Lai says that the initial 30-day campaign “nearly doubled its original target of $30,000,” by raising $53,943. “This success coupled with avid media and blogger interest enabled us to grow and we haven’t stopped since.”

However, while not an overnight success, Wright says that the campaign did require many sleepless nights. “We basically didn’t really sleep for 30 days but we overcame this by working in shifts. While the EscapeCapsule was live, we were emailing and messaging every technology blog we could find to get coverage of our invention. It was worth every sleepless night.”

They Hate Us, Cause They Ain’t Us

Ironically, other news outlets like The Verge just didn’t grasp the concept of what Catalyst was offering up to the industry. 

“The Verge story was a stand-alone article from the early days when people were just starting to buy AirPods,” Lai explained. “There weren’t a lot of cases on the market, so people didn’t understand how they would use the AirPods and what some of the unmet needs were for the consumer.”

Lai continued:

“…After we launched and people started to use the case and their AirPods more, they realized that we covered things you would need like making it easy to attach & find your AirPods and not lose them, keeping them sealed from water and dirt so they wouldn’t become dust traps in the bottom of your bag, and protecting the charge case while giving easy access.”

Wright added that in looking at the “naked device” itself, Apple brought a proof-of-concept to consumers back in 2017 when it launched AirPods, disrupting the earbuds category of tech. 

“…but from a design perspective they were very compact with a slick case. This meant they could be easily misplaced or slip from unwary hands and pockets, which would be an expensive misadventure. We designed a simple insurance policy that created a security layer that was waterproof, drop proof, had a carabiner to attach to a bag or belt so you didn’t lose them and was made with a grippy silicone material which was easier and more secure to handle.”

Wright says that their invention addressed a pain point that was “quickly evident” with the introduction of the AirPods. 

“It was reinforced quickly as other case companies quickly came up with and released their own versions of the AirPods cases – still none as protective as the Catalyst case. And as the AirPods versions have evolved, so have our designs. We now have a full range of colors, textures and levels of protection for the AirPods and AirPods Pro.”

In 2020, Catalyst released the Total Protection Case for AirPods Pro, which is a completely secure tank for the accessory, 100% waterproof to 330 feet and completely washable and sanitizable in accordance with CDC guidelines – without having to remove the AirPods from the case.

The overwhelming response by the press and consumers, according to Lai, led to the incredible success of Catalyst’s launch, and subsequently, its newest product.

“Our lead in this category set off a wave in the market. Competitors came later launching their own versions and designs of a case for the hottest new accessory, but we’d solved most of the usability features that consumers wanted by then.”

For more of Andrew’s work, please click here.

Andrew Rossow is the Legal Editor and Strategy Operations Advisor at Disrupt Magazine, focusing on cannabis, social justice, and technology. He is a practicing attorney and the CEO and President of AR Media Consulting. He serves as a co-founder of The Guardian Project, alongside TV actor, Mark Pellegrino (13 Reasons Why, Supernatural, Lost, Dexter). Rossow has appeared regularly on CHEDDAR TV, ABC, FOX, CBS, and NBC affiliate networks throughout the U.S. He has been recognized by Entrepreneur and Fast Company for his journalistic integrity in helping build out and grow media outlets, formerly Grit Daily News.

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