More About… eFoldi
As the expression goes, every cloud has a silver lining. Arguably, no story better reinforces this than Sumi Wang’s, the Managing Director of Suntech UK. After experiencing what she describes as the ‘darkest days’ for her family, a silver lining emerged with the creation of a new innovation, the eFoldi. Sumi tells us more about the product’s interesting past and promising future.
As with many new inventions, the eFoldi is the result of a combination of an unforeseen circumstance and a spark of ingenuity.
Sumi explained: “I entered the industry after what could be described as a series of unfortunate events. In 2013, I was working at a university in London but fell ill so I had to go to the hospital for treatment. Living outside London in Surrey, I couldn’t really get into the city to work every day, so I had to quit my job.”
It was around this time that Sumi’s father, Jianmin Wang, suffered a broken leg in Beijing.
“With my father in the hospital in China and me in hospital in the UK, it was the darkest days for my family,” continued Sumi.
It would be these events however that would lead to the invention of a new, folding mobility scooter.
Designer and inventor Jianmin has worked as the Chief Engineer for China’s National Acrobatic Troupe for over 20 years, designing performance and stage props used in death-defying stunts.
“My Dad is always creating new inventions, so when he found himself immobile, he went to work finding a solution,” said Sumi. “It was actually whilst in the hospital that he began to design his own walking aid, which would go on to become the very first prototype of the eFoldi.”
Living in Beijing, where space is at a premium and people live vertically, Jianmin went to work creating a scooter that would ideally meet his specific needs.
“In the city, it is almost impossible to have a chunky mobility scooter so he wanted to create something transportable and easy to fold that could easily fit into a car boot and be stored away in buildings,” explained Sumi.
It was whilst driving his new invention around and being asked where he purchased it that the family realised there could be commercial potential in the new device.
At the same time, Sumi had begun to recover and was out of the hospital, but was still taking ongoing medication and felt too weak to travel back to London daily for work. Instead, the entrepreneur turned her attention to her father’s invention and looked to bring it to a wider market.
Having an academic background in engineering, Sumi described the steep learning curve she faced when she entered the industry.
“It was the boldest decision of my life. I had no experience in manufacturing or in a real business environment before.”
“We sorted out patents and trademarks first and then started down the manufacturing process. The biggest challenge I found was taking what my father had created, which was a prototype designed specifically for himself, and turning it into a product that could meet the needs of many.”
It was during this time that Sumi discovered the ins and outs of the production process, an experience she reminisces as being tough and eye-opening.
“Finding high-quality, reliable manufacturers, as well sourcing all the components needed, was not an easy process. Although the device looks small and relatively simple, it has over 300 different parts.
“To fold everything together so it compacts as effectively as possible was another challenge we had to overcome. Sometimes, even a 1mm difference between components could prevent it from folding up, so we had to be very precise.”
After spending time redesigning, researching and developing the product and having created 20 different versions of the initial prototype, the first version of eFoldi was ready to release for testing in April 2016. It was then that Sumi discovered a problem.
“We had invested so heavily in the R&D, when it came to making the first units for people to test, we didn’t have the sufficient funds.”
The power of crowdfunding
Like many new companies looking to raise funds whilst retaining control of their company, the entrepreneur decided to turn to crowdfunding, starting a campaign on Crowdfunder.
Sumi told THIIS: “We were wary that it may not work because we were asking people to pay a lot upfront for a product they hadn’t seen with their own eyes and to trust that a person they had never met before would deliver them a finished product in nine months’ time.”
The campaign proved a success, raising more than £100,000 with pledges being received from all around the world.
Describing the crowdfunding success, Sumi said: “I look at it as a huge amount of trust. It was humbling and really pushed me to make sure we didn’t let them down.
“To go the more traditional route of getting feedback from testers can be costly in terms of time and money. The way we did it really made pledgers feel involved and invested in the product and I am friends with a lot of them now. It created a community of users all too ready to share their thoughts, ideas and opinions on how we could improve it.”
At the end of 2016, Sumi had managed to fulfil and deliver all eFoldi units to the crowdfunding pledgers and began receiving the all-important user feedback.
“There was a lot of nail-biting towards the end of 2016 to see if we could make it, so it was a wonderful feeling when we did,” commented Sumi.
“That was stage 1; testing, trialling and feedback. After all the extensive feedback we received, we actually redesigned the eFoldi for 2017, ready to bring the product to the consumer market.”
New and improved
Armed with the vast range of feedback, Sumi and her team set about making a number of changes and refinements to help the mobility scooter better meet users’ needs.
She explained: “The main point that kept reoccurring in the feedback was to reduce the weight. Previously we had used steel but now we are producing the new eFoldi all in aluminium. That gave us a 20% reduction in weight, from just under 20g to now 16kg.
“This weight reduction was vital. For a lot of people, that figure is the threshold between being able to and not being able to lift it.”
As well as making the overall scooter lighter, the company also made it easier for users to remove the battery and included a USB port in the battery pack for users to charge devices such as phones and laptops.
“The battery only weighs 1.8kg, so people wanted to take the battery out so they could charge it in the house whilst leaving the scooter in the car, so we made it very easy for them to do this,” added Sumi.
The result is a mobility scooter that is lighter, stronger and more durable than its original according to Sumi, with the company currently mass producing the eFoldi ready for an Autumn launch.
On the lookout for mobility retailers
With the product refined, the company is now exploring ways to bring her father’s invention to market and is looking in the direction of mobility dealers.
“We are keen to start working with retailers to sell the product,” Sumi told us. “We are as much as an R&D company as a manufacturer, so our expertise does not lie in customer service. At the moment, we deal directly with end-users, however, this is the legacy of the crowdfunding.
“This was great at the beginning for feedback, but later as we roll the new product out, we would like to leave that to people who are experts with customers, like regional dealers.”
Suntech UK will continue to sell the eFoldi via their website for a transitional period says the company, but plans to eventually get to a point where they can nominate stockists to customers by postcode.
“At the moment, we have had a lot of interest from down in the South Coast and also in the Midlands, but we welcome all dealers nationwide to get in touch. We think it will be a great addition to their product portfolios,” added Sumi.
Global ambitions and more innovations
Following the crowdfunding success, which saw eFoldi receive pledges from the USA, Holland, Italy and even as far as Thailand, Sumi is convinced that the eFoldi has global appeal.
“The USA certainly offers us the most potential and really is the big market to crack.
“We have also seen a lot of interest from China and we already have a distributor in the country. It’s proving popular because the product was originally designed to operate in Beijing, so it really fits in with people’s lifestyle there.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, she also discussed some new projects in the pipeline; proving she has inherited the same restless drive that inspired her father to create the first eFoldi prototype years ago.
She told THIIS: “We are already looking at expanding the product range, including working on a compact, folding powerchair to add to the range.”
Sumi will be showcasing the new eFoldi on stand A5 at Trade Days at the NEC in Birmingham on the 8th and 9th of October.
To find out more about retailer opportunities, contact Sumi on email@example.com
The website for the company is www.efoldi.co.uk