Rolling forward: Making life easier for people in wheelchairs

Cape Town - Being an entrepreneur is challenging at the best of times. Starting and building a business requires stamina, courage and a willingness to keep pushing forward, even when the world seems to be pulling you back.

Imagine then, being an active and passionate entrepreneur while also being confined to a wheelchair, paralysed from the chest down. It takes a special kind of person to overcome such adversity, and a truly special one to turn it into motivation to make the world a better place for others in a similar situation.

Zahied Mukaddam is such a person. Here he shares his story about how he ended up in a wheelchair, and how it galvanised him into channelling his personal experiences and frustrations into a bold new design of chair that has healthcare industry players taking note.

Tell us how you became confined to a wheelchair? How did this change your life, and what did it mean for your family?

On the 3rd of December 1993, while on my way to work, I was struck by a stray bullet which tore through my spinal cord and left me instantly paralysed from the chest down. I was declared dead on arrival at Groote Schuur hospital, but I miraculously survived. My life changed in an instant when I was told that I would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

My wife was three months pregnant at the time with our daughter. Today, my daughter is 23 years old and has only ever known me in a wheelchair…she has never seen me stand up or walk, and most probably never will.

The hardship that follows being paralysed in this fashion is something that no-one can fully prepare for, especially the endless medical expenses and unexpected medical emergencies. However, my family and I are incredibly close and thankfully we have managed to build a good life for ourselves, in spite of the challenges my situation presents.

Tell us about your product - why the new chair design? What makes it better?

After experiencing a breakage to my mono frame wheelchair, and having to spend a frustrating three days in bed while trying to arrange a loaner, I began asking questions about the design of the chair I had been sitting in all these years.

I started researching online (my ‘day’ job involves working with IT and systems), and after significant investigation and analysis I came up with a design that adds a second tube to the frame of the wheelchair, and reduces the overall tubing used in the main frame. The double-tubed design adds stability and strength, while reducing stress on the spine of the user.

Over time I have added several further innovations to the chair that let me customise and change things quickly to suit my specific needs in terms of comfort and support.

Having now spent over two years in this chair, I have discovered that a major difference is that there is less impact shock on my spinal cord, which is a huge plus when spending many hours in the chair. I am also far less tired than I used to be, since the easy customisation allows me to quickly modify elements of the chair based on my pushing needs, the gradient, type of terrain etc.

This ease of customisation is also something that sets my design apart – very few if any products on the market allow for this, and certainly not at the price point I want to sell my chair at.

After completing my personal chair (having only thought about my own requirements at that stage), I started to realise that I might be on to something after people who saw me in it were captivated and asked me how they could get one too. That got me working on refining my initial design. The process of R&D on the current iteration began in earnest about two years ago, and at this stage I am working towards clinical trials.

Tell us about your progress and any challenges you are facing?

Currently my original prototype is the only fully completed chair, but I am close to completion of four more chairs to allow me to test the feasibility of my idea in the market, with an eye on an official launch in the first quarter of 2018. I have received a real boost in terms of access to funds and mentorship from the SAB Foundation, as one of the Finalists in their 2016 Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment Awards.

I have also had some great support from Tuberose and EB Machining. However, developing a new concept in the healthcare and medical space is very expensive, and it is especially difficult to find funding for social projects like mine that are mainly geared at the upliftment of individuals, rather than for making a large profit.

I am currently seeking an investor or funder to allow me to complete final development and iron out a few remaining manufacturing wrinkles. The largest challenges have revolved around the local development of components, many of which I ended up having to design and make by hand myself. I need to constantly find ways to refine the outsourced production process to make it simpler.

Your vision - what is the overarching reason why you have put so much time, money and energy into this product?

My vision is to have my wheelchair design taken up by hospitals near and far, and for it to become the new norm for all disabled people. Being in a wheelchair is bad enough, being stuck for life in a slow, rigid and uncomfortable hospital-issued chair is totally demoralising.

Wheelchair users need diversity and choice at an affordable price, and this is what I aim to achieve. The feedback and market indicators are very positive.

I am also working on a revolutionary new design of chair for those who find themselves in areas with limited roads and infrastructure – watch this space!

Finally, any advice for budding entrepreneurs out there?

I know it is a cliché, but never give up. I have faced multiple obstacles; even seemingly simple things like trying to meet with investors, suppliers and engineers while confined to a wheelchair are a challenge for me - and yet I know that one way or another, the world needs my product and I will finish it. If you are going to dream, dream big!

* Anton Ressel is a small business coach and resident adviser on Fin24's weekly video show #EntrepreneurCornerSend us your questionsand Anton will answer as many as possible in future shows. You can also engage with us on Fin24's Twitter and Facebook pages. Look for our hashtag, #EntrepreneurCorner.

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