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Corien Staels - Staels Design

Upwardly mobile mobility products…

Corien Staels - Staels Design

Upwardly mobile mobility products

She has survived the heat of Dragon's Den and is ready to conquer the world with her innovative cooling solution for wheelchairs, now being made in Dunfermline. Entrepreneur Corien Staels may already be turning her mind to the next generation of mobility and disability products, but first she means business – getting wheelAIR to market.

“One of the most important things I've learned since getting involved in the disability market,” says Corien Staels, the CEO of Staels Design, “is just how inaccessible so many things are, and just how easy it would be to make them more accessible – including homes and offices as well as simple everyday items like clothing.”

Such words suggest that Staels has many more bright ideas for products to come, but first she has to focus all her energies on sending the first wave of her innovative wheelchair solution to distributors around the world, and winning market confidence. Her first product breakthrough is wheelAIR, a cooling backrest cushion which makes life much more comfortable for wheelchair users by regulating body temperature. For Staels this also means that customers have greater control and can “live life on their own terms,” staying cooler for longer.

One of the biggest challenges for disabled people, says Staels, is inclusion, and wheelAIR is a perfect example of a product which can make a critical difference in everyday life if you spend most of your time in a wheelchair. Most people can sit in an armchair for hours without any problem, but if you're in a wheelchair, “sometimes certain neurological conditions or spinal cord injuries mean that you can easily get over-heated and/or start sweating a lot – or not at all,” she explains. Another nasty side-effect of heatstroke is nausea, but the over-riding complaint is what Staels calls “frustration with a lack of solutions.”

If you’re competing in the Paralympics, over-heating could even mean the difference between winning and losing a medal. Michael Kerr, the former captain of the GB wheelchair rugby team, who recently became a brand ambassador for wheelAIR, confirms this: “When I first learnt about the benefits it could have for a huge number of chair users, and especially for those with spinal cord injuries, I just had to get involved.”

The battery-powered wheelAIR has in-built fan technology with four different settings, not just to cool the user's back but also to reduce the body’s “core temperature” by taking away excess heat and moisture – increasing comfort and reducing the risk of hyperthermia. By using high-quality fabrics and foam for the cushion, it also offers extra support.

Staels first came up with the idea while at college in the Netherlands, writing a research paper on “the development of a cooling wheelchair cover and T-shirt to cool down the body temperature of wheelchair sports competitors with a spinal cord injury, in particular handbike athletes.”

At that time, no-one talked about developing the concept and starting a business to market the product, but when she came to the University of Glasgow to do her MSc in International Business and Entrepreneurship in 2015, the idea quickly gathered momentum and Staels Design was founded the following year, inspired by the mission to “meet unmet needs in the market.” She also had the drive to be an entrepreneur, and her studies in Glasgow confirmed this and sharpened her skills.

Before she came to Scotland, Staels had done a lot of research, interviewing wheelchair users, Paralympic athletes and retailers. “I threw myself into the disability community,” she says. And because her thesis supervisor at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute was a wheelchair user, she also had plenty of expert advice close to hand.

So where did the original idea come from and what drove her on? In a recent interview, Staels explained her motivation: “I’d heard so many stories about wheelchair users cooling themselves down with water hoses and sprays, and disabled athletes wearing ice vests. I thought it was ridiculous that people with a disability still have to use such methods, so having thought of a solution, I thought I needed to bring this to market.”

While in the Netherlands, Staels built a basic prototype from off-the-shelf components, but development took off in earnest in Glasgow, including sourcing better foam and fabrics and improving the fan and the power supply. Staels knew a lot about textiles but not about injection moulding, complex electronics, foam or rubber, so she had to learn as she progressed, but her experience in fashion management meant she was used to working with creative designers. “The electronics was the most difficult aspect,” she says, but thanks to engineering ingenuity, wheelAIR now features four levels of airflow to meet special needs.

As the product took shape, Staels used a focus group to gather user feedback and fine-tune the design, making it lighter in weight and more power-efficient. Her initial operational expenses were covered by Enterprise Campus (an organisation funded by the Scottish Funding Council which helped postgraduates from Scottish universities to set up and grow their own business, and “realise their entrepreneurial potential”), and more awards soon followed, including £10,000 from Scottish EDGE which allowed Staels to hire a design team. This was soon followed by a further £100,000 from Scottish EDGE and £31,000 from Converge Challenge, which enabled Staels to move into production, plus £100,000 from private investors which helped her to expand her team and take her product to market.

Dragons’ Den

Appearing on the BBC TV show Dragons’ Den in 2017 gave Staels mass-market exposure, but in the end she turned down the offer from Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden (£75,000 between them for 30% of the business, dropping to 20% once the Dragons got their money back) and went it alone, having raised enough cash (including the money from Scottish EDGE) since the TV show to start producing wheelAIR in Dunfermline. “At first I wasn’t keen to appear on the show, but it would have been great to be mentored by Peter and Deborah.”

During filming, Staels had an experience she’ll never forget. The pitch was going well when Peter Jones began interrogating Staels about her numbers, and she suddenly started to feel very faint – she had not eaten anything all day before her appearance and the heat of the studio lights pushed her over the edge. The next thing she knew, Staels was in a wheelchair, being cooled down thanks to wheelAIR, but eating lots of biscuits helped her back onto her feet to complete her otherwise “pitch-perfect” presentation – and find herself having to choose different offers from four of the Dragons before she eventually opted for Meaden and Jones.

“The BBC crew must have been seeing gold when they wheeled me out of the Den, eating a banana,” wrote Staels in a blog, but her embarrassment was worth it in the end when the show made her famous – and won nationwide recognition for wheelAIR.

The only negative discussion in the Den was to do with the pricing, says Staels. At £650 per unit, the retail price may seem quite high for “a cushion,” but this needs to be put into perspective. Some basic backrest cushions cost £200, while similar products for wheelchairs are priced significantly higher than wheelAIR, without the same degree of functionality (the only design of its type with four levels of airflow) or quality materials, including replaceable parts. Add to this the margins of retailers and distributors, and £650 may start to look like a bargain if it does what the company claims – improving people’s posture, taking away heat and moisture, speeding up rehabilitation and preventing heatstroke. “It would be nice to sell the product for a few pounds,” says Staels, “but we could not sustain that.”

Highlights so far

So how is Staels enjoying the experience? “It’s been a roller-coaster of emotions,” she says.

On the plus side, she loves learning and doing so many different things at the same time – it stops her getting bored. She also loves to see ideas becoming a reality, including all the steps involved in building her business: “It’s been super-exciting to set up the company, but the highest high is seeing people using the product – that’s a great outcome. Running a business isn’t about money for me – it is about the thrill of being able to change people’s lives for the better.”

Staels always had ambitions to start her own business, but since she ticked that box, she’s also started learning “what they didn’t teach me at university,” and her experience as an RSE Enterprise Fellow provided her with in-depth business training as well as mentoring and one year’s salary, from October 2016 to September last year. “I think that you can learn to be an entrepreneur but you have to be born with the passion and drive,” she says. “You also have to be resilient and willing to work 24/7.”

What next?

Staels is now busy building her team and setting up an international distributor network. “We are ready to take the market by storm, both nationally and internationally,” Staels recently wrote on her website. “Now we are one step closer to achieving our aim of being the centre of expertise in cooling and heating solutions for the mobility industry.”

Manufacturing is now going full-steam ahead, and doing this in Dunfermline means Staels has much greater control and can deal with issues faster because she is closer at hand. Today, the main priority is sales, but Staels also has her eyes set on the future and bringing new products to market, retaining the focus on heating and cooling. Exploring new markets will also require more attention.

More challenges ahead

Staels enjoys the challenge of the disability market and has worked with a wide range of organisations as well as wheelchair users to develop her current design, and this experience has opened her eyes to other possibilities in the disability market beyond wheelchair comfort. For example, she points out that wheelchair users often require different zippers and buttons, and clothes which hang unlike most regular off-the-peg items. Speciality fashion is part of the answer, but instead of having separate outlets, Staels believes these different styles of clothing should be in mainstream shops to make the retail experience much more inclusive – just as disabled athletes now compete in the Commonwealth Games just like everyone else.

This inclusive approach is reflected in wheelAIR – Staels identified a problem and discovered a new way to solve it by asking: “Why not?” Why shouldn't wheelchair users feel more comfortable? Why shouldn't society be more inclusive?

“I want to create more awareness of issues like this,” says Staels, “and designing more inclusive solutions like wheelAIR is part of that process. There are so many things to improve.”

Next up in the Staels Design portfolio is a range of related new products for heating and cooling. But because she also has a background in the fashion industry and has started to research the disability market in much greater depth, who knows what may be next?





"Corien Staels - Staels Design". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-two)
Printed from on 27/05/20 10:57:38 PM

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