The journey of an award-winning smart wheelchair
17 Feb 2021
How a smart wheelchair pushed forward one man’s dream of success
Innovation is often sparked from personal experience and for Andrew Slorance, Founder and CEO of Phoenix Instinct, his dream to create a user-friendly wheelchair led him from designing at his kitchen table to becoming the winner of the Mobility Unlimited Challenge. Below, he tells us how he got there…
My journey as an entrepreneur started far earlier than I ever realised. Defining life experiences had set me on my journey long before I considered the time was right to dedicate myself to creating new products.
A spinal injury left me paralysed at chest level when I fell fifty feet from a tree at age fourteen. The first day I went out in public as a wheelchair user was one of the hardest days of my life. The wheelchair was big, heavy, ugly, difficult to use and medical.
I felt robbed of my identity and from then onwards, the wheelchair would be the first impression anyone would get of me. This wheelchair didn’t represent me in any way. In fact, the wheelchair was more disabling than the paralysis.
When I was sixteen I heard of a new material called carbon fibre, which claimed to be as strong as steel and as light as aluminium. I immediately started to think that wheelchairs should be made of carbon fibre, and I fully expected that wheelchair companies would quickly adopt the material and improve their products. I made the decision that if they didn’t improve the wheelchair, then I would. Revolutionising the wheelchair to make it cool, high performance tech rather than medical device became a life ambition.
Moving my kit was a nightmare
As the years went on, I learned to live as a wheelchair user. While working as a video editor for the ITN, I was given a field assignment. I would need to travel on my own transporting the editing equipment from the studios in London, all the way to Belfast. The kit consisted of two metal flight cases weighing 28kg, plus my own travel bag and wheelchair. Moving it was a nightmare, I was reliant on taxi drivers and passers-by helping me. I got the job done, but it was clear that I needed a solution to move the kit independently.
Once back home I went to a hardware store and purchased a gardening trolley and, over a weekend, I found a way to modify it and attach it to my wheelchair, so that it was able to move with the chair in every direction. It worked a treat and I felt empowered to take on the next field assignment.
I was the only TV news crew member who was a wheelchair user and it felt brilliant to be relied upon in such a fast, high pressure industry. Due to a simple innovation my disability was irrelevant.
I didn’t realise it then, but I would eventually develop the trolley into the only wheelchair compatible luggage in the world and bring it to market.
Andrew took the lessons he learned during his previous innovation experiences to build a device which revolutionises the wheelchair.
Bringing my idea to life
As the years went on, the wheelchair industry didn’t adopt carbon fibre. In fact, they didn’t do much at all to improve their product offering. Wheelchairs had become lighter and smaller since the one I had as a teenager, but otherwise, nothing had changed. I had a great career in TV but I still had a calling to revolutionise the wheelchair. And so I set about bringing my vision for a new wheelchair to life.
I took over the kitchen table and hand carved my idea using architectural modelling foam and a craft knife and had it wrapped in carbon. Without moulds the result wasn’t great, but it was good enough to encourage me to keep going. I borrowed enough money to have my design created in 3D and produced with moulds, and I called the wheelchair ‘Carbon Black’. I entered Carbon Black into Scottish Edge, a Scottish Business competition and won £100,000 for my international strategy. However, my world was about to fall apart as within 48 hours of the win, I faced a coup from the investors. My employment with Carbon Black was terminated. Without me in the business Scottish Edge withdrew the award.
Now unemployed and feeling very burnt I had a choice, I could either get a job or continue my entrepreneurial journey. Going through spinal cord injury and being a wheelchair user made me very resilient, so I immediately got back on the horse and started a new business.
Rising out of the ashes
I named the new company Phoenix Instinct, after the mythical bird of fire that can never be destroyed. I wanted the first product to solve a real problem faced by all wheelchair users. I already knew that moving luggage independently stopped many wheelchair users from traveling, and so it was time to turn my personal kit trolley into a marketable travel bag.
I taught myself 3D modelling from Youtube videos, designed a mounting bracket to attach the bag to the wheelchair and used a 3D printer to create the bracket design. I ran a crowdfunding campaign and re-entered the Scottish Edge competition. I won £50,000 which I combined with the crowdfunding money to leverage a grant from the Scottish government.
I had been working on a new wheelchair design again using carbon fibre, but the business didn’t have the funds to realise the design. When I heard about the $1m Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge, I knew I had to go for it.
The remit of the competition was to produce a device that included intelligent systems and revolutionised mobility for people with lower limb paralysis. My idea was an intelligent centre of gravity, which distributes users’ weight from the front wheels into the rear wheels of the wheelchair, greatly reducing drag for easier pushing.
The entry grabbed the attention of the judges and I made the first shortlist, receiving $50,000 to develop my proposal into an in-depth plan. I then secured a place as one of the five finalists, receiving a further $500,000. We now had 18 months to make my ideas a working reality.
"All the years of work and hurt were finally delivering for us. My vision to revolutionise the wheelchair was shared by the judges. We did it!"
Worth the wait
The next 18 months were gruelling, as I worked on the idea for the Challenge and ran the business. Then Covid-19 came along and almost everything stopped. As the deadline drew closer, I saw the chances of my vision becoming a reality start to slip away.
The winners announcement in Tokyo 2020 was postponed, and the finalists were given a three month extension to help recover lost time due to the pandemic. After continuous work to try and iron out the glitches that plagued the development, we got it right just in time for the deadline.
We had successfully transformed the wheelchair from an inanimate device to one that was engaged and reactive, totally in sync with the user.
On 17th December 2020, the Toyota Mobility Foundation held a live event to announce the winner of the Mobility Unlimited Challenge. I watched with my wife Mary, who has been a rock through so many tough times. After a tense wait, Sir Philip Craven, member of the Board of Directors at Toyota Motor Corporation and former President of the International Paralympic Committee, finally said: “The winner is – Phoenix Instinct”. We both burst with emotion, this was huge. All the years of work and hurt were finally delivering for us. My vision to revolutionise the wheelchair was shared by the judges. We did it!
Now the job of turning the prototype into a market product begins. My entrepreneurial journey continues, my small company is at the forefront of creating a new era of the wheelchair. Watch this space!