Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.
You can hear the excitement in Mauricio Meza's voice as he describes a disabled young computer programmer playing the latest Grand Theft Auto game using only the controls of his wheelchair.
But the device, called Tecla Shield Dos and made by Toronto-based Komodo OpenLab Inc., has much more potential than that. It can help people with disabilities change the way they live and work by allowing them to manipulate smartphones, tablets and computers with the built-in controls of their wheelchairs.
The company is off to a good start in Canada, where hospitals and rehab centres can use government grants to purchase the sleek, hard-drive-sized box or borrow it from the Ontario Ministry of Health-backed Centralized Equipment Pool, for example, which purchases medical devices and lends them to clinics.
But the company is facing bigger challenges in the United States, where 4.5 million disabled people live, and where it's having difficulty breaking in to the health insurance system.
There, the Tecla Shield, which costs about $350, is viewed as more of a consumer electronics device than a medical one, so health insurance providers have yet to compensate rehab clinics or patients for it, says Mr. Meza, who is co-founder and head of business development at Komodo.
"People don't really get access to funding for assistive devices in the U.S," says Mr. Meza. "And getting funding from health insurance companies is a long, complicated process."
Komodo is thus finding it difficult to recruit partners there to distribute its device and spread the word. So far, the company, which has three full-time employees and six contract workers, has partnered with six distributors in the United States and six others worldwide.
Launched in 2011, Komodo sold about 475 of its first-generation Tecla Shields, named for its shield-like shape, in 19 countries. Only about a quarter of the devices were sold south of the border. Komodo hopes to boost that number for the second version, which was released in early September.
The company might be able to sell more Tecla Shields if it could afford to give them away free for testing purposes. But at $350 a pop, that's an expensive gamble. The devices are mostly made in-house.
"We know that the product is good, we know that when the end users find out about it that they'll be interested," says Mr. Meza. "It's just how to get to those users."
The Challenge: How can Komodo put its device into the hands of users in the United States, where medical funding is harder to come by?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Raphael Hofstein, president and CEO, MaRS Innovation, Toronto
If they're looking for inroads into the distribution chain, sometimes it's easier to identify a distributor who is significant in Canada and wants to move to the U.S., then they can grow with them. Or look to a large company that is already established. Take Baxter International, for example. Everything they develop in the United States, the Canadian arm – Baxter Canada – immediately adds to their product line and starts distributing through their system in Canada.
Here they could look for the reverse. Identify possible distributors in Canada that can demonstrate there's public appetite for the device, and then that distributor could relay the message to the U.S. arm of their operations.
One thing on distributors: Quite often you'll find they have quite a few products on their list and don't devote enough time to yours. Komodo needs to find one that recognizes their value – whether it's a manufacturer of wheelchairs or assistive equipment in general.
William Mitchell, professor of strategic management, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
On this side of the border they should get someone who uses the device to look at their website and tell them what's wrong with it. There are two things that concern me about it. It tells you more about what the device is than why someone would want to use it. Secondly, when they do talk about why somebody would want to use it, they show icons of people rather than people.
Improving it is not just about Internet sales – it's about making the right impression when prospective distributors look at the site. They're going to look at Komodo's message and say, "Is this something we're comfortable with as part of our value proposition?"
South of the border, they should talk to every one of the people who have bought the device to find out what they like and don't about using it. That info could be posted on their website. They need a face and a name – someone who's excited about it – and they can build from there.
Andrew Sinclair, chief executive officer of OtoSim Inc., an otoscopy and medical device training tools developer, Toronto
If they find it really expensive shipping their product back and forth to the States, and it's fraught with all kinds of customs barriers, establishing a relationship with a logistics company would allow it to take over the responsibility for filling out those forms. We actually went through that and now use an external logistics supplier. The other alternative is to hire a logistics company in Buffalo that will store your product and ship it out of Buffalo and back to Buffalo so you only clear customs once when you send it to them.
To promote it in the U.S., they could reach out to organizations that support people in wheelchairs or assistive technologies. Those associations have newsletters, and people also frequently approach them looking for advice about services. Connect with an executive director of one of these organizations. If the director or organization is actually convinced that this is a cool idea, there's every reason to expect that they would promote it for free.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Partner with a large Canadian distributor
Rather than focus south of the border, look for an assistive-technology supplier in Canada with a U.S. distribution arm.
Hire a logistics company
To reduce customs duties, find a U.S.-based firm that can handle shipping loaner devices throughout the U.S. or handle paperwork for sending products cross-border.
Rework the website
Add a human element to the website to help customers and potential distributors identify more with the brand image.
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Interviews have been edited and condensed.