Glasgow-based Staels Design has a mission to “meet unmet needs” in rehabilitation product design and mobility equipment.
After being exposed to the challenges wheelchair users face to control their body temperatures, company founder Corien Staels was inspired to make a change.
She came up with “WheelAir” - the first battery powered airflow back-rest cushion, designed to offer support and comfort while keeping wheelchair users cool.
We catch up with Corien to hear more about the company’s innovation story.
What were your main objectives when you first decided to launch WheelAir?
I’d heard so many stories about wheelchair users cooling themselves down with water hoses and sprays - I thought it was ridiculous that in 2017, when so many industries have benefitted from innovation, disabled people still have to use such methods.
Having thought of a solution, I thought – “I need to bring this to market”, because I knew how many people could benefit from it.
How does innovation feature in your development strategy?
First of all, we’ve launched a product that looks good –that in itself shouldn’t be a novelty but it is in the mobility industry.
We’ve created a product that is of so much higher quality than any other cooling method on the market - people are really surprised by that.
Of all the wheelchair users that I speak to, most of them thank me for being an able-bodied young person designing for them, because it just doesn’t really happen.
As a non wheelchair user, what was it that made this such an important cause to you?
My dissertation supervisor at university was a wheelchair user, so I kind of got the idea from spending time with her. It was a concept I found myself so interested in, and I really held onto that.
Now I meet so many wheelchair users, and it still surprises me how much they pay for products that don’t help them enough.
I push wheelchair users around town all the time, and Glasgow is so inaccessible. There are so many challenges wheelchair users face, that as an able-bodied person you just have no idea about.
People don’t know about overheating issues, and I see it as my duty to make more people aware of these things and to change them, because I have the skill set to do so. To meet people who are so grateful for what you do is just amazing.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve encountered on your business development journey?
For me, the biggest challenge has been finding the right people. I needed to get an engineer on board to help progress my idea further, but as a recent masters graduate, how did I hire people I couldn’t afford?
I interviewed for co-founders but nothing felt right. Then through winning competitions I won more funding, which helped me to progress the company.
I think the most difficult thing of all was getting from the first prototype to when we started really developing the product nine months ago.
Describe the most memorable part of your development journey so far?
The most memorable part no doubt was when we were filming our company video in Kelvingrove Park about a month ago. Jay Anderson, a sports coach from Dundee, was a female model for our video.
Between filming, she turned to me and said, “This is the first time in 20 years that I’ve actually been comfortable and not overheating in the sun.” To hear her say that was just incredible, it was a really emotional moment.
You design stuff – I’ve been working on this for two years - and all the time you just hope it will make an impact. To see it actually making an impact is just phenomenal – I can’t even describe it.
What was the most useful piece of support you received from the innovation team at Scottish Enterprise?
It’s hard to say just one amazing thing the team did. I think having someone to bounce ideas off is very important.
The innovation team is so big and there’s so much support available, but to have someone there – especially if you’re a full founder - to guide you to the different things available has been very important for me.
Without that support, it would’ve been extremely difficult for me to get everything done at the right time.
What’s next for the company?
First of all, we’re pitching at EDGE. Then we want to go into manufacturing in October to start shipping in November, which is a major step for us.
We’ve had so much progress in the last nine months to get us to the pre-manufacturing state, and now it’s about getting into the hardcore stuff, like negotiating with retailers, distribution and manufacturing agreements. I feel like that is the next level we are just embarking on.
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