How much can there be to innovate in a wheelchair? Motion Composites has taken the industry back to the drawing board, and the results are changing lives and causing ripples throughout the sector. We spoke with Tina Roesler, Head of International Business Development, and Nicholas Forrester, VP of Sales for Canada, to find out exactly why this company’s product design is causing such a buzz.
Seating, bicycles – these products are constantly updated and improved upon, and yet wheelchairs remain largely the same. “I think people picture wheelchairs like the ones in airports – something that looks pretty generic,” Tina Roesler, Motion Composite’s Head of International Business Development told us, “But the truth is that most people should have something that’s custom built.” Sound excessive? Nicholas Forrester, Motion Composite’s VP of Sales for Canada, went on to illustrate why this is so important: “There are thousands of different types of office chairs, because people are not all built the same way. When it comes to wheelchairs, you might not get out of it for 12-14 hours a day, so it’s very important to make sure to have the right chair underneath you.”
Given the view of wheelchairs as a uniform piece of equipment, Tina told us that many suppliers and therapists will recommend wheelchairs that do not fit the needs of the end user in question. “For example, maybe the client doesn’t need armrests, but they’re giving them armrests anyway, and they might not know that they can take them off.” On top of this, there are many other factors that could affect what a patient needs from a chair; as Nick mentioned, individual build and posture comes into play, and there are also details such as age or the nature of the user’s injury or condition to factor in. This is what Motion Composites is striving to do.
The company’s co-founders, Eric Simoneau and David Gingras, began thinking about improved manual wheelchair design when they were in college. Looking at wheelchairs from an engineering standpoint, both men realised that contemporary designs were inefficient and needlessly heavy, whilst other markets were leaving the same technology far behind. Inspired to solve this problem, Eric and David teamed up and brought together a team of aerospace engineers, clinicians, and industrial designers with the task of redesigning the wheelchair from scratch. As Eric, now company President, told us; “We started the company by engineering and selling foldable models for the first eight years but realized that there was an opportunity in the market to introduce a high-end rigid model. We launched the APEX and since then it has become one of our most successful models, winning a Red Dot award for design in 2017. As a company we are successful due to a number of factors, but really it comes down to hiring and supporting the best talent, listening attentively to user feedback, and delivering a high-quality product with a cutting-edge design.”
“It sounds funny,” Tina told us, “But one of the advantages of our engineering team is that we don’t have any engineers that have been a part of the medical equipment industry in the past. In order to bring new ideas in, and to not get trapped in ‘let’s do it how we’ve always done it’, you have to bring people in from the outside. It’s really fun for me, as an industry person, to see that new wave of fresh ideas and thought processes.”
“When I visited Motion Composites, before I worked for them, it impressed me that they really were doing something different. The engineers were fixing things that nobody else in the industry fixed, and they did it without any knowledge that they were problems.” Approaching the design with no industry preconceptions, Motion Composites’ team identified issues and engineered solutions for them without having to un-learn old ideas. This approach makes for fresh and exciting innovation but, of course, is conducted closely hand in hand with the market and users of the chairs. “We have not lost sight of how we got to where we are today,” Nick told us, “and that’s from listening to the market.”
Motion Composite’s chairs don’t only resolve many previously unfixed design issues – they are also fully customisable, not only to cater to a client’s health and needs, but also their comfort and aesthetic preferences. This was first brought to the market when, deploying the world’s most advanced technology, high-end materials and cutting-edge engineering, Motion Composites launched its first design (the Helio C2) in 2008. In the process, it revolutionised how people think about wheelchairs, and business took off. Between 2008 and 2013, Motion Composites grew sales a remarkable 2241%, earning an impressive 26th place on the 2014 Profit 500 List of the fastest growing companies in Canada. Today, although the company’s main markets remain Canada and the US, its chairs are now available today in 24 countries, including Australia, New Zealand and much of Europe.
Both Nick and Tina joined the company four years ago, and both came to it rich in experience. Nick graduated from a Canadian university with a degree in biomechanics, and joined the industry as a wheelchair dealer at 22. He worked as a dealer for 15 years, liaising directly with both clients and therapists. Four years ago, he brought this knowledge and hands-on experience to Motion Composites, now overseeing sales in Canada with direct knowledge of custom needs, and what dealers are experiencing on the ground.
Tina trained as a physiotherapist, and has worked within the medical equipment industry for 20 years. She worked for the Roho Group for eight years, as Sales Rep and Director of Clinical Education for their wound care cushions. She then worked for another wheelchair manufacturer for ten years, during which time she collaborated with the company to introduce and promote titanium chairs – the biggest shake-up of the industry before Motion Composites came along. Now, she oversees Motion Composite’s International Sales, as well as having some involvement in the US.
We asked the pair what makes Motion Composites stand out from its competitors. Both agreed that, first and foremost, it was the level of innovation in its products. As Tina told us, “I’ve always been lucky to work for companies that have really unique products. Material is where our industry really has been behind – we all know that carbon fibre has been introduced to many other industries for many years, but it’s never been successful in ours.” Since those attempts, technology has changed and evolved, but the industry hasn’t returned to the idea of using this superior material. Motion Composites, in contrast, works primarily with carbon fibre, hence the lightweight and freeing quality of its chairs.
“The market was stagnant,” said Nick. “Titanium was one of the few disruptions to the market, but mostly, it was stagnant for many years. Our goal is to keep ahead of the curve, and to keep being market disruptors.”
In part, one can measure the success of this new technology by watching how competitors respond to it. Motion Composites has noticed an increase in carbon fibre used by other wheelchair manufacturers since it brought in the material, but it isn’t worried about being overtaken: “We are experts first and foremost in carbon fibre,” explained Tina, “And it’s hard for a company that works mostly in metals, and does all its welding in house etc., to transfer that technology to carbon fibre. It doesn’t transfer.”
As well as its many in-house innovations, Motion Composites has also recently elevated its products through its acquisition of Dynamic Health Care Solutions, through which it has procured the company’s Seating Series. “We were at a bit of a crossroads, where we could continue to develop all of our own product, but when it came to seating, this is the route we decided to take, and I think with good reason. By acquiring Dynamic, it gives us better market penetration, and it gives us synergy [through the seating product] over all of our products.” The company plans to use the seating on not only all of its own chairs, but to sell this seating to its competitors, too.
The other element of Motion Composites that stands out for Nick, aside from its product quality, is the company atmosphere: “I find that Motion Composites stands above anyone else because of the culture that it instills in its staff. That’s the big difference for me.” The team includes many younger engineers, and encourages them to come forward with a fresh perspective and new approaches to old questions. Added to this, the feel-good nature of the job makes for a passionate and happy team that truly care about what they’re doing: It’s different to if you’re selling hot tubs. We’re providing solutions for people who truly need them and improving the day-to-day lives of people who use our products. It’s exciting. After seeing first-hand for so many years what a good prescription can do for someone, there’s no better feeling.”
The feeling is contagious. Whilst the titanium chairs of her last company were an “uphill battle” to introduce to the market, Tina told us that “this product seems to sell itself, so to say. At first, people say, ‘Oh, it’s just another wheelchair’, but I very rarely have people come out of a presentation or an introduction not impressed and surprised that there are so many changes, whether they’re small or big.” These changes both refer to engineering fixes to the base designs of the chairs, and also the incredible number of customisable and adjustable options to make sure every customer’s chair is exactly how they need it to be. “To give you an idea of just how versatile and adjustable these chairs really are,” Nick elaborated with pride, “with one of our folding chairs, you can make almost 300,000 configurations.”
No matter how advanced a design, however, you cannot change an industry or market with a product alone – you also need the market to understand what it is you’ve done. “I think our approach is different from others,” said Nick, “In that we’ve really focused, even at the initial concept, on education. Instead of knocking on a dealer’s door and saying ‘We’re going to help you make a lot more money’, we’ve focused on the clinical side of the business. The growth that’s occurred in Canada is really down to the education that we provided: we went to dealers, but we also went to clinicians, not just in the big cities, but in the smaller towns and rural areas of Canada, and clinicians quickly adapted to that idea.” Motion Composites now hires three full-time clinical educators, who coordinate communication with therapists and clinicians, and even organize classes, both for dealers and therapists, and also wheelchair users.
As well as making sure that its chairs hit the regulatory requirements for each country it markets to, Motion Composites must communicate with that country’s government and therapists to explain what it is that the company brings to the table. As Nick said, this has been particularly successful in Canada; as for overseas, Tina told us, success varies from market to market, and much of this has to do with existing clinical practices. “Our biggest international success has been Australia and New Zealand, because they operate much in the same was as North America, their clinicians are trained much in the same way. I think every European country has its own way of practising and providing products, and they also have very different funding systems sometimes. So, a chair in the UK might have a certain price tag, but then you go to Spain or Portugal, and it’s 1000 Euros less, for no reason other than the funding, so that’s a challenge on a global scale.”
Looking to future expansion, Motion Composites is considering an attempt to break into the Asian market but, as Tina explained, it knows that this won’t be straightforward, “Asia is a very particular market, and every country in Asia is very different as well.”
Due to the amount of customisation possible, Motion Composites is able to work with end users to find the best way to answer their physical needs whilst also hitting a price point they can afford, but to go the extra mile and help people access this life-changing technology who otherwise wouldn’t be able to, the company also runs a ‘Wishes for Wheels’ program. Through this program, the company donates one wheelchair per quarter to someone in need, with no limit on the chair features that the recipient is able to choose.
Since its inception, Motion Composites has developed a family of innovative high-performance manual wheelchairs that open up countless health-improving options for their customers, as well as the enjoyment and pride of having something that looks slick and a little different. Every wheelchair the company produces is the lightest in its class, and true to the founders’ vision of improving lives by providing enhanced mobility. This is a genuinely exciting product to learn about, and a testament to the power of true innovation. Sometimes, in this fast-moving world, we need to throw out the old recipe, remind ourselves of its purpose, and start again.