We’ve seen three Accelerator cohorts come through our doors here at CRL, with applications for the fourth Accelerator programme just about to open (12 Nov). The previous cohorts have been made up of some of the most exciting, unique hardware entrepreneurs in the UK and beyond. After the programme is over, many chose to stay at CRL and make this their place of work, however it’s encouraged that entrepreneurs follow their product, wherever that might take them, whether that’s a different incubator, their own office space, or in the instance of this interviewee, Kenya! It’s great when we get a chance to check in with members of our previous cohorts, not least because these individual’s stories show what can be achieved with CRL support, but more broadly where initiative, passion and commitment can get you.
I skyped with Cara O’Sullivan about her latest product SafariSeat, as well as the evolvable walking aid product she was developing whilst at CRL – and the twists and turns of her entrepreneurial journey.
What initially brought you to CRL?
I came to CRL straight from university having just been selected as a finalist in a Nesta competition called ‘The Inclusive Technology Prize’. The competition was seeking innovative and commercially viable product ideas to improve life for people with disabilities and grant them equal access to life’s opportunities. I needed space where I could prototype, as well as build a business model, which lead me to CRL. It was a peculiar way around because the product had originally been designed for developing regions of the world with no intent for commercialisation.
Could you tell me a bit more about how the product that brought you to CRL was born?
I’d been working at a mobility rehabilitation centre in rural Peru to develop a sustainable walking aid kit which was easy to adapt and made completely from local materials. The kit was made using processed pallet wood and could be easily assembled like Lego® to form crutches, sticks and walking frames, held together using cable ties. Electricity wasn’t required to make it. The total cost of the product was around 68 pence.
It was also sustainable from an emotional perspective, in that once people became attached to it, they didn’t need to throw it away or get a new one – a patient could adapt the product as their condition changed. It was only when I returned to the UK that I realised such an adaptable product could benefit people there too.
What stage was it at when you came to CRL?
The product I came to CRL with was a version of the walking aid kit intended for UK markets, using the prototype and research I had from Peru. My challenges were to decipher whether there was a solid market for this type of product, to prove it was viable, and to develop a comprehensive business plan – which was a big part of the draw for coming to CRL.
How long did you spend at CRL developing the product?
I joined in September 2015 and moved out at the end of last year.
What product are you working on now?
The product I’m working on now is very different. I reconnected with a student from my Brunel product design course who had designed a wheelchair and was also interested in the design of sustainable mobility equipment. Using skills learnt from CRL we put together a business plan, successfully crowdfunded the project and completely redesigned his original concept to create SafariSeat: a low-cost, open source, all-terrain wheelchair.
What have the last few months consisted of for you?
Our Kickstarter campaign for SafariSeat went far better than we’d expected. Shortly after the campaign, we moved out to Kenya and have been prototyping ever since. Now that we’ve refined and tested the design, we’re working on setting up a production line, which needs a few final tweaks before we commence manufacture of the first 200 SafariSeats.
An important part of the business is that even the production line is sustainable and it’s been put together in a way that’s in line with our values. Once operating, the production line will function entirely without our support. The production line team is made up of locals with disabilities, and the plan is that the business will continue to provide them with a sustainable income.
Once the production line is in full swing we will be making the SafariSeat design open source so that workshops and individuals around the world can access and make it. There’s certainly potential to commercialise SafariSeat, however for the time being our focus is the Kenyan market rather than the UK, that said we might find a space for a sustainable, very affordable wheelchair at some point in the future.
What advice would you give to entrepreneur at the beginning of their journey considering joining CRL?
For me it was definitely identifying what you want out of it from the beginning. Be open to suggestions, even if they relate to changing the direction of your business. Surround yourself with the community at CRL; one of the best things about being at CRL was sharing ideas and getting advice from like-minded people.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
On the note of like-minded people, if anyone has any questions about my journey or the products I’ve worked on, please feel free to get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org). So many things you need to learn about building a business come from talking to people, so be open and willing to have those discussions.