More about… wheelAIR
Turning a great idea into a great business
For many, the idea of launching a new company with an original, innovative product designed to solve a relatively unknown problem whilst simultaneously studying for a Master’s degree may sound like an impossible task. For Corien Staels however, she has proven that the impossible is most certainly possible, successfully bringing her unique cooling cushion to the market in 2017. THIIS spoke to the CEO to find out what challenges she faced, what would she change if she could do it all over again and what does the future hold.
A moment of inspiration, months of determination
Innovation often comes from a eureka moment and for the young Belgian businesswoman, her eureka moment came whilst studying in Amsterdam for her undergraduate degree in fashion. It was during a conversation with her dissertation supervisor, a wheelchair user, that she was introduced to a problem that many people in wheelchairs face but had never been effectively addressed.
“We were brainstorming about what I could potentially do for my dissertation and eventually we got onto the problem of overheating for wheelchair users,” explained Corien.
During her studies, she had been introduced to different medical and technical textiles but at that time, she was unfamiliar with the world of disability and mobility.
“I didn’t have any wheelchair using friends really and so it was completely unknown to me but it really intrigued me,” she continued.
“I had a car so I just drove around Belgium and the Netherlands for the next six-months, talking to everyone I could; both wheelchair athletes and regular wheelchair users.”
Soon into her research, she realised that a majority of wheelchair users and particularly those undertaking physical activities had experienced issues of overheating, turning to some drastic measures to try and cool down.
Astounded by tales of strapping ice packs to their bodies or spraying themselves with water hoses post-exercise, Corien resolutely decided that she would bring an unobtrusive solution to users.
It was a decision that would change the course of her life.
After spending time researching possible solutions, she came up with the wheelAIR in 2015, a cooling backrest designed with inbuilt fan technology to help cool the back and reduce a user’s core temperature by taking away excess heat and moisture.
From concept to company
In 2016, she moved to Glasgow to begin her Master’s degree and founded Staels Design, thus beginning her long journey into the world of business.
The following years have been a steep learning curve for the young entrepreneur as she learned more about business, branding, mobility, funding, prototypes, production and all the other facets of turning a good idea into a sustainable and successful company.
“We have been trying out different things and the buzz has really grown from it” Corien Staels
The amount of effort sounds daunting, especially whilst still studying for a degree at the same time, but for Corien, the experience has been far more rewarding than it has been arduous.
“I wouldn’t say I could ever work myself to death because I love every minute of it,” she commented.
“There is no way I could continue to work so much on it if I didn’t absolutely love it.”
Now, just under two-years on, wheelAIR has made an appearance on the BBC’s Dragon Den, won multiple awards and secured key brand ambassadors, as well being adopted by retailers such as John Preston Healthcare and used in a trial at Edinburgh Airport.
The challenge of education
To call Corien’s entrepreneurial journey an ongoing success would be no exaggeration, however, it is one that she says has its fair share of difficulties.
“I don’t think there is anything that hasn’t been a challenge!” she professed.
“I think the biggest challenge is education. Wheelchair users who have overheating issues are sometimes unaware that there is a solution available and instead take around little spray bottles and ice packs with them.”
Additionally, Corien says that whilst the problem is one that is known by users, there is little awareness of overheating amongst able-bodied people.
“Many people, including some dealers, are unaware of the problem of overheating so we are not just trying to inform people that our cooling cushion is on the market but actually educating them that the issue exists at all,” the ambitious CEO continued.
“It is not always easy to reach a large audience so having to reach a lot of different people to both promote a product and raise awareness is a real ongoing challenge.”
Multi-channel approach to marketing
Traditionally, a communication campaign of this scale would be reserved for multinational organisations with multi-million-pound marketing budgets, however, the fledgling business decided to use modern channels to grab the market’s attention.
“We use various media channels and one of the ones we are most active on is social media,” explained Corien.
“We interacted with some great ambassadors for the company on social media and really started growing our network.”
Along with social media, the company used more conventional means such as events to network with people in the industry, with Corien highlighting the importance of meeting people face-to-face.
“I came to Scotland not knowing anyone so I started going to wheelchair events and was fortunate enough to make some great contacts who introduced me to more great people. Before I knew it, there were a lot of people in Scotland who I knew and who knew me,” she said.
“I found that the disability community is very tight-knit, so messages spread quickly and it really helped raise the product’s awareness in the early days.”
Perhaps most valuable for raising the company’s profile to a wider audience was its effective public relations campaign, providing rafts of imagery and information to magazines and blogs who quickly got behind the company’s drive to tackle the issue of overheating.
The market’s response
With brand recognition and product adoption increasing, the industry newcomer says experimenting with different channels has been vital for its growth.
“Really, we have been trying out different things and the buzz has really grown from it,” she reflected.
“People have really been engaging with the product and education is definitely working. It is really cool because it started as just a graduation project and now people at this year’s Naidex were approaching us and saying that they had heard of us or that their OT had told them about us.
“That is a great feeling.”
Importantly, Corien underlined the value in meeting with prospective and current users face-to-face when launching a new product, giving customers a chance to interact with the product and the company a chance to receive crucial feedback.
“We found at Naidex that some people are still sceptical about the cushion, however, every time a wheelchair user actually saw and touched the product, they all left the stand saying how impressed they were and complimenting us on its design and function,” she said.
“That feedback is invaluable because starting a business is so hard and takes up a tremendous amount of time and effort, which can sometimes make you lose sight and stop appreciating the good the product is doing. It is nice to stand still for a moment and appreciate what we are doing here.”
Learning the trade
One of the key elements to any successful business is establishing a strong, supportive retail network to help bring the product to market. For Corien, it proved one of the areas with the steepest learning curve.
“I think one of the trickiest things is the number of dealers in the UK, especially because many have their own specialities,” observed Corien.
“Coming in completely new to the industry meant that it was tough to find out which dealers would fit with our brand and really run with the product. At the same time, I learned so much from the dealers.”
With the company close to finalising its dealer support package, Corien was keen to emphasise Stael Design’s primary goal of providing comprehensive support to retailers.
“Customised marketing that is seasonal and effective will be one key aspect of the support package,” she confirmed.
“We want the pack to have everything, including every design decision that was made with the product, case studies and more, so dealers can really understand the product when they sell it.
“Again, it all comes back to the education. I want people to want to sell it and to have the same passion for providing this solution that I have. The more information I give, the more they can understand my vision and hopefully get behind it.”
In spite of having only been in business just under 24-months, Corien says she understands the importance of having good retailer/supplier relationships and what it takes to achieve them.
“Listening to each other is essential so that both parties can meet their needs,” she commented.
“Being flexible is important and if there is a problem, solving it as quickly as possible on our side. Vice versa, it’s important for retailers to pass on feedback from the end-users to us so we know what improvements can be made.
“I can only improve the product over time with the feedback of those who are actually using it on a daily basis, so having that relationship with dealers who are able and willing to share this is hugely valuable.”
If she could do it all over again…
Commenting on what she would do differently if she had the opportunity to start the whole journey over again, Corien discussed the topic of funding for new companies.
“I think I would do everything differently. My biggest difficulty at the start was a lack of money, which impacts a lot of the decision making, such as which companies to subcontract out,” she highlighted.
Funding for any start-up is always a difficult aspect to manage, with the costs associated with establishing and building a new company being high at the start whilst revenues are at their lowest.
“It is great that I was able to build up my funding through grants, competitions and investments but it was hard finding the balance of when to seek investment,” added Corien.
“If I had half a million at the start of this journey, I would have arrived where we are today a lot faster.”
Using the benefit of her hindsight, Corien shared some candid and helpful advice to other would-be entrepreneurs planning their first business venture.
“A key tip for anyone preparing to launch a new product is to take your time and do the research,” she stressed.
“I didn’t have any money to spend on product development so I spent the best part of half a year doing market research whilst doing my Master’s degree. It really helped me refine my proposition which is important.”
And the winner is….
With funding playing such a key role in any new start-up, wheelAIR managed to secure a large proportion of its early capital through winning a host of important innovation awards.
In its trophy cabinet, the cushion specialist can boast a £100k prize in Scottish Edge, a £31k prize in the Converge Challenge, as well as Corien personally winning Entrepreneur of the Year at Glasgow University’s Knowledge Exchange and Engagement Conference.
Despite all of these prestigious prizes, the young CEO’s proudest award was also one of her earliest.
“I know this might sound ridiculous but I think my proudest moment was winning a £250 Amazon voucher whilst at university for the wheelAIR idea,” revealed Corien.
“It was the first prize I had ever won, coming second in the ‘Big Ideas’ awards. I bought myself a pasta machine.
“That was when I thought somebody believes in me and my idea; it made me feel really proud and even when I won £100k, it felt great but it never reached the same level of excitement that the very first award gave me.”
What the future holds
Having learned a tremendous amount in such a short space of time, Corien’s journey with her cooling backrest cushion is just heating up and, like any true entrepreneur, the young determined Belgian CEO has big plans on the horizon.
“On top of building our business in the UK, we are also looking to export globally and working on building an international distributor network to get wheelAIR to help as many people around the world as possible,” she stated.
“I have so many products in my mind that we are keen to start developing, so once wheelAIR is running smoothly, we will start to invest in them and hopefully create an entire cooling range for the mobility industry.”
Not lacking inspiration, Corien hopes her immediate goal of fully establishing the wheelAIR in the UK market will help drive her ambition to create more innovations.
“If I had half a million at the start of this journey, I would have arrived where we are today a lot faster” Corien Staels
For now, she is eager to build a larger UK-based retail network and is encouraging dealers to share in her vision.
“I think wheelAIR would be a great addition to every retailer because not only is it a really easy sell if they are selling a wheelchair already, it also gives retailers an opportunity to go back to customers that they have sold a wheelchair to and inform them that this solution is available as well,” finished Corien.
“It is such a new product that people want to see it, touch it and feel it and for that, we need the dealers because the more accessible it is to people, the more wheelchair users will want to adopt it.”