Chris Myant looks at how Andrew Slorance went about producing the wheelchair of his dreams, while ensuring all the necessary patents and protections were in place…
When are Prada, Gucci and Armani going to apply their design talents to the wheelchair? Creating, from the front wheels to the backrest, a glorious fashion statement, something more than just a public notice of someone’s medical need?
Wheelchairs first appeared in Britain in the form of cumbersome ‘Bath chairs’ – so named, it is supposed, because they were used by visitors to that city who were seeking the curative powers of its waters – though they required a bevy of servants to push and manoeuvre them to the famous Pump Rooms.
In vast Bath chairs, people were barely visible – and sometimes it can still feel that way. Why can’t a wheelchair be more like a new dress, suit or hat, something you itch to be seen in? Why do they often require the strength of a weightlifter to load them into a car? Why is it that the materials they’re made from seem to mark everything round them?
Something beautifully sculpted
Andrew Slorance (right) had frequently asked himself those questions, ever since he first began a wheelchair of his own wheelchair at the age of 14. Much later, after having spent two decades working in television, he took the plunge, gave up his job and set about creating a unique wheelchair that his teenage self would have twirled around the dancefloor in utter delight.
From the word go, Andrew’s ambition was to devise something beautifully sculpted and shaped to please to the eyes, but which could also cater to its user’s every mobility need. From the outset, Andrew was further determined from the outside that the wheelchair would be made with carbon fibre – but exploring such cutting edge technologies can be a very expensive process.
The finished Carbon Black chair costs around 10 times more than a traditional lightweight wheelchair. It has to be hand-crafted, which is just the way it is when manufacturing small volume carbon fibre products. It’s a model that’s widely accepted and understood when used to make Formula 1 cars or parts for Airbus planes, but something of an obstacle in a market where units are typically measured in thousands.
Andrew himself concedes that the Carbon Black will never be a ‘cheap’ option: “If you go too far away from what people understand, you can make it too big a step for customers to take,” Andrew he says. “There’s no guarantee that you will succeed. But I was determined to offer a revolutionary design, because that was what I wanted for myself. We can cut some costs, but on the carbon fibre elements there is a fundamental barrier.”
But what if there was a potential partner out there – one prepared to push the boundaries on carbon fibre production and moulding?
Cost is the enemy
An important aspect of the Carbon Black is that it’s firmly aimed at active, independent users. “Handles give out a message – ‘I need help,'” Andrew maintains. “That’s not the image those who buy Carbon Black want to give. People come and offer to push, and in the past there would have been no choice. Clip-on handles are one of the things we have on the cards, but it will not be a fundamental part of the design.”
Instead of offers to push, Andrew says, the comments he attracts are more along the lines of “That’s cool, can I touch it? Are you one of those guys that plays basketball?” That’s something he won’t let go of.
However, as Andrew readily notes, “Cost is my biggest enemy. For the moment we have to be content with breaking into markets where people can afford what we offer – that is, Europe and North America. We cannot conquer the rest of the world on our own!
“In the US, there is more of a can-do attitude, and the roads and pavements are better than in Britain. California is an ‘outdoors world’ that suits Carbon Black, hence the orders we have received.”
Journey into the unknown
The design of the Carbon Black was registered via the quick and easy process of European registered designs, and has British, European, US, Canadian and Australian patents pending.
From the beginning, Andrew used a patent attorney. “I’d have needed a big wallet if I wanted to go after anyone in a foreign country trying to snitch my designs and ideas,” he says. “The whole process of inventing and moving into production and selling is a journey into the unknown. You need help. If you want people to invest in your product then you need to protect your intellectual property. Without it, people wouldn’t have touched me with a bargepole.”
When I first filed for a British patent, I had a storm of emails and letters. There were all sorts of people in fake outfits trying to see what they could make out of me. It would have been easy to fall for some of them – they had proper letterheads, their names seemed legit. I was glad I had invested in professional advice.”
So much for Prada, Gucci and Armani – Andrew has pretty much done the job already. “Even if Carbon Black stops tomorrow, we have shown wheelchairs can be beautiful, cool, sexy objects of pride,” he concludes. Though it does invite the question – will there now be a paradigm shift in how we think of wheelchairs, similar to what Dyson managed for vacuum cleaners?
To find out more about the Carbon Black, contact 01869 240 114 or www.carbonblacksystem.com; advice and guidance on applying for patents, securing trademarks and safeguarding your idea is available from the Intellectual Property Office – see www.gov.uk/ipo for further details