When Jeff Adams and Christian Bagg met eight years ago, they bonded over a shared frustration: They weren't satisfied with their wheelchairs.
With a background as a machinist, Bagg had modified his wheelchair to his liking. "I got my first chair and right away I saw a need to make it better," says the Calgary native, now 36, who broke his back in a snowboarding accident when he was 20.
Toronto-native Adams, now 41, has used a wheelchair since he was 9 due to a side effect of cancer treatment. A 13-time Paralympic-medal winner, Adams had seen first-hand the technological advances that have been made to racing chairs over the years, and wondered why everyday chairs hadn't improved in a similar way.
In 2007, Adams and Bagg partnered with Cervélo, a Canadian bicycle manufacturer, to launch Marvel Wheelchairs, a company with a mission to produce an adjustable wheelchair. Three years later, the founders were pushed out of Marvel in a hostile takeover. "The way the takeover happened is still confusing to us," says Adams. "If we were bad managers, the option to install new managers was available, but clearly [Cervélo]was unhappy and felt they could do a better job."
While the pair was disappointed by the outcome, "we're still really proud of the work we did at Marvel," says Adams. (Cervélo continues to sell the Marvel chair, and did not respond to requests for comment at press time.)
Adams and Bagg didn't give up. With the backing of two new investors, and more time to evolve their design, they launched Icon Wheelchairs in 2010. "We feel we've built the best chair on the planet," says Bagg, who, in order to avoid any patent infringement issues, reverted to a design and set of patents that he had created before his work at Marvel.
Unlike many high-end wheelchairs that can only be customized to the user's needs at the time of purchase, the Icon can be reconfigured to accommodate continuing changes in the owner's body. The base model sells for $4,300, and all upgrades (such as new wheels or an alternative seat) are external to the design of the chair itself.
But, according to the pair, what really sets the Icon apart from the competition is its adjustable suspension. "When we do presentations, we dare people to name another sophisticated vehicle that doesn't have suspension," says Adams, who adds that suspension is critical for efficiency and comfort. The Icon uses advanced suspension technology similar to that used in bicycles.
Before launching in spring, 2010, Adams and Bagg went on Dragon's Den looking to sell 20% of Icon for $500,000. Though they were turned down, going on the show was "probably the best thing we ever did," says Adams. They were approached soon after by Multimatic, an automotive components manufacturer in Markham, Ontario, with whom they now have a work-for-hire agreement.
"Everything we'd ever had headaches with, they were offering to do at levels we couldn't comprehend," says Bagg. Multimatic conducts final engineering, manufacturing, testing and inventory control for Icon.
"It's been a long, hard road, but we've tried to never lose sight of our true passion, which is making the best chair we can," says Bagg. "As a designer for the chair, and because I'm bound by the fact that I'm paralyzed, I'll never stop thinking about ways to make the chair better."
3 things to know before you start
- Pick your partners well. “Doubts will not diminish over time,” says Adams. “For better or worse, you're stuck with partners in business for a long time, so you'd better be sure.”
- Hire consultants carefully. “If I could go back in time, I would only ever pay someone for a tangible result,” says Adams. “Define their job and give them a target to deliver. If they don't deliver, they don't get paid.”
- Don't kid yourself. “I used to have visions of being a millionaire at 25,” says Bagg. “The reality is that being an entrepreneur is way more work than having a day job. So you better love it.”