The Era of Social Distancing has made life a little more difficult for pickpocketers. But rest assured, they will eventually be back at full force.

British entrepreneur Sarah Giblin is the founder of Riut, the manufacturer of innovative theft-resistant backpacks for travelers and urban commuters. The RiutBag straps on like a traditional backpack, but the zippers go flush against the wearer’s back – dramatically reducing opportunities for grab-and-run pickpocketing.

Promising to “build better cities one backpack at a time,” she beckons prospective customers to “imagine a city where no one is frustrated, suspicious or stressed.” The company’s secure backpack designs “help travelers know they are safe so they can see the people around them as fellow citizens, not potential threats.”

A one-woman startup, Giblin pulled her product ideas and marketing slogans from an unforgettable feeling she experienced a few years ago while waiting to get off an airplane. During the mad rush when the plane comes to a full halt and people leap to their feet to open the luggage compartments, Giblin observed a guy in front of her seem uncomfortable about the claustrophobic conditions. After she was pushed from behind into his backpack, the man nervously took off his pack, unzipped the outer compartments and stuffed his passport and wallet into his front pockets.

Giblin was surprised. Was she unknowingly giving off the vibes of a petty thief? She was just tired and wanted to get home.

“I was mulling over this when there was another heave of people from the back of the plane and the guy behind me suddenly got really close to my backpack,” Giblin recalled. “And I found myself reacting in exactly the same way, thinking ‘Oh, my God, is my wallet still there? Is my passport still there? Are my keys safe?’”

“And then I just imagined this endless queue of everyone in the world with backpacks worrying about what was going on behind them,” she added.

A product idea was born.

Turning Pencil Sketches into Prototypes

The RuitBag flips the traditional backpack design so that the zippered pouches are flush against the user’s back, eliminating easy access for thieves and pickpockets. (Image source: )

The creator of the RiutBag shared her entrepreneurial journey with Onshape founder Jon Hirschtick on one of the earlier episodes of his “Masters of Engineering” podcast that celebrates the backstories behind innovative product designs.

Giblin has been the most unusual guest on Hirschtick’s podcast because she successfully launched a consumer product without any formal education about product development. In 2014, she quit her public relations job and just dove into her dream, learning from her mistakes as she moved along. 

After not being able to find any similar products on the internet, she sketched out her ideas with pencil and paper and brought them to prototyping companies in the UK. She was inspired by the business book “The Art of the Start” by former Apple marketing exec Guy Kawasaki.   

“I was following his advice which was, ‘Don't write a business plan. Prototype. Make your prototype and finish it. And then, once you know that this thing is going to work, think about everything else,’” she said.

A design firm was contracted to make three closed-shell prototypes (paper and fabric) straight from Giblin’s drawings. After testing the fit and zippers, Giblin made a marketing video and posted it on Kickstarter. Attracting 1,091 backers in 30 days, she was able to fund a trip to China to meet with prospective manufacturing partners.

The reason she was able to generate so much initial Kickstarter interest was an earlier strategy to engage real travelers with ongoing SurveyMonkey questions about their backpack preferences while she was still tinkering with prototypes. 

“They didn’t all back the bag, but people felt ownership of what I was making because they were actually providing data for it,” notes Giblin.

Her company name, “Riut,” is actually an acronym for “Revolution In User Thinking,” acknowledging that most product improvements are a direct result of incorporating customer feedback.   

A One-Person Quality Assurance Team

Entrepreneur Sarah Giblin’s innovative “backwards backpack” was inspired by an incident she witnessed on a tightly packed airplane. (Image source: )

To date, Riut has sold more than 20,000 bags. On the podcast, Giblin told Hirschtick that in addition to her executive and project management duties, she is also a one-woman QA team. Her first time inspecting the manufacturing process in China was an eye-opening experience.

“I couldn't believe it, when I was at the factory, that so many of the bags had problems with them. I felt angry at the time because I just couldn't handle it, but what I needed to learn was that manufacturing something is an incredibly complex process – and you need  to allow enough time to make a high-quality product,” she said. 

On every production run since, Giblin has personally checked every seam and zipper.

“I've probably spent about three months doing nothing other than checking Riut bags. And you might think I'm crazy and that I should get a company to do this. But you wouldn't believe how much I learn as someone who was not a professional backpack designer,” she said.

“I get immediate feedback from that moment where I check the bag. I can see where the manufacturing weaknesses were in my design,” Giblin added. “What about my design was making it harder to manufacture that product? Could I achieve the same outcome for the customer, but manufacture it in an easier way?” 

Often asked by friends what products she plans to reinvent next, the entrepreneur warns she has a “boring answer.”

"I'm going to keep slowly and incrementally developing the backwards backpack,” she said. "Because I actually believe this is the future of backpacks.”

Intrigued to learn more about the challenges of designing and manufacturing a consumer product? You can listen to Jon Hirschtick’s full “Masters of Engineering” conversation with Sarah Giblin here

Subscribe to the “Masters of Engineering” Podcast

Jon Hirschtick’s “Masters of Engineering” podcast is devoted to the backstories behind cool products, the people who develop them and how they do it. As the founder of both SOLIDWORKS and Onshape, and now PTC’s Executive Vice President, Hirschtick explores his lifetime fascination with the product development process – how ideas evolve into products with many twists and turns along the way.

The first six episodes are now available for download at Buzzsprout, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, Podcast Addict, and other popular platforms. In addition to Giblin, here are the other product innovators to sit down with Hirschtick so far:

  • Styling Iconic Sports Cars (Mark Ferri, designer of the Corvette Stingray) – Ever wonder how your favorite sports car or luxury car got its classic look? Guest Mark Ferri, a senior industrial designer for Uber, was previously a designer at General Motors for 17 years. At GM. he personally styled (using both clay models and computer design) the Corvette Stingray, the Camaro 6, the Cadillac XTS and many other vehicle exteriors and interiors. In this episode, Mark reveals the challenges of redesigning the look of iconic car brands, and offers advice to aspiring product designers who are still in school.

  • Robots That Can Touch and Feel (Dr. Bill Townsend, founder of Barrett Technology) – Barrett Technology’s humanlike robot once shook hands with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but attracting celebrity friends is not its primary talent. Barrett is a pioneer in haptic robot arms and hands, which can apply the appropriate amount of physical pressure in different situations like a human would. The technology now has medical and physical therapy applications, with the robot arm even being able to give a massage. In this episode, Bill tells Jon the secret behind his robots’ magic touch and reflects on how his engineering journey first started when he built a treehouse at age 14.

  • Reimagining How Machine Parts Get Made (Mitch Free, founder of ZYCI and – Mitch Free is a college dropout who partnered with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to build, the first online marketplace bringing together product designers and manufacturers. The serial entrepreneur is now seeking to improve the way every machine part in the world gets made. He’s currently the founder and CEO of ZYCI (pronounced “ZEE-key”), a CNC-machining, plastic molding and additive manufacturing company serving the aerospace and defense industries. In this podcast, Mitch reminisces with Jon about his unusual career path from refurbishing used aircraft to figuring out how to cut Ferrium M54, one of the toughest steels ever made.

  • How the Rise Emergency Ventilator Was Built From Scratch in 21 Days (Eduardo Torrealba, CEO of Meter) – Eduardo Torrealba is the co-founder and CEO of Meter, an industrial hardware startup that took on the challenge of building a more affordable ventilator in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. A typical medical device can take many months or even years to bring to market. The Rise Emergency Ventilator went from idea to deliverable mass-produced product in 21 days. In this podcast, Eduardo tells Jon how his extended team of 50 professionals – engineers, hospital clinicians, software developers, and 3D printing experts – designed, built, and tested six iterations of the emergency ventilator. He also shares how cloud productivity tools (and unsustainable 120-hour work weeks) made this amazing collaborative effort possible.

  • Will Electric Air Taxis Rescue Our Morning Commute? (Sean McCluskey, Additive Lead for Joby Aviation) – Sean McCluskey is the additive lead at Joby Aviation, overseeing design, manufacturing, and certification of 3D-printed components on the company’s four-passenger electric air taxi now under development. The innovative aircraft takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter, then smoothly transitions to forward flight. Joby Aviation’s goal is to reduce traffic congestion and give people “more freedom to choose where they work, live, and play.”  In this podcast, Sean tells Jon how battery technology, additive manufacturing, and advanced composite materials are changing the world of aviation design. Containing more than a thousand 3D-printed parts – including titanium airframe components – this air taxi could redefine the aircraft development process.  

Stay tuned to this space for information on upcoming episodes!