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Startups Awkward, clunky and just plain ugly: the cane gets a much-needed makeover

Top & Derby cane, influenced by sneaker soles

Is it possible to disrupt the market for canes? The clinical world of mobility aids isn't the first one you'd associate with high design – and that's precisely why a trio of young designers sees an opportunity.

"Go to be a fly on the wall in Yorkville," says Ben Grynol. "You'd see these people getting out of S-class Mercedes, and they're dressed to the nines. And they pull out this silver-looking thing with a grey foam handle that can't be more than 20 bucks. And you ask, they're using that by choice?"

Mr. Grynol is one-third of Top & Derby, a Winnipeg-based venture that got its start when he was in Toronto, completing his MBA at the Rotman School of Business. Its insight was simple: So many of the canes that people use are poorly designed, in big ways and small. Canes can be hard to lean up against walls. The mechanism for adjusting a cane's height – something most people will only do once – will make a clinking sound for a cane's lifetime. And the things are just plain ugly.

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"People don't always realize what they don't like about them," says Grynol. But the more "guerilla research" he conducted, and the more rapid prototypes his partners burned through, the more the team learned about what users want.

The result was the Top & Derby cane, a svelte-looking walnut stick, fastened to a T-shaped polished aluminum handle with a slightly upturned nose, sheathed in coloured rubber. Taking a cue from Apple (or, for that matter, Henry Ford), the trio made a decision to keep the product line simple and produce only one model, offered in custom sizes, and with a choice of three handle colours.

And when they turned to Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site, to test the waters with the public, the team found they were onto something: The $70 cane quickly racked up over $14,000 in pre-orders. (The campaign is open for another few days still.)

Shipments are still a few months off, but Mr. Grynol has ambitions to replicate this approach on products across the health care sector. "It's such a stagnant and clinical industry."

And as other designers in their early-30s age bracket are focused more on apps and up-market coffee tables, Top & Derby is trying to work its way into a market where expectations are low, and users are paying the price.

Just as Starbucks raised the bar on what customers expect of a coffee shop, says Mr. Grynol, "we're trying to do the same, where the de facto standard becomes well-designed products in health care, so that companies that aren't doing that are going to feel the impact."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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