Annie Makoff finds out whether crowdfunding could be a viable way of developing items and equipment for the disability market…
According to crowdfunding platform Fundable, the crowdfunding market was on track to add $65 billion to the global economy by the end of 2014. At a time when traditional bank funding is hard to come by, it’s no surprise that aspiring entrepreneurs are turning to alternative means of raising finances for their projects.
For those wanting to develop assistive technology products, crowdfunding potentially offers a means of a turning their concepts into a reality – but the process can also can be fraught with risks, not least because its success is wholly dependent on current trends of the day.
How does it work?
At its simplest, crowdfunding involves large numbers of people pledging small donations to help develop a particular project – often in exchange for rewards, such as stakes within the product itself or related merchandise. According to Chris Buckingham, MD of the specialist crowdfunding agency Minivation, there are several crowdfunding models.
Under a donation-based model, individuals pledge money without expecting a return. A reward-based model, meanwhile, sees money pledged in return for non-monetary rewards. Finally there’s the equity-based model, whereby backers receive profit shares in return for their donations. As Buckingham explains, “What you are really doing is asking the crowd for permission to create the vision you want to create.”
For the team behind Grippoz – an innovative wheelchair push-rim cover – crowdfunding made the prospect of developing and mass-producing the product feasible. Grippoz was conceived as a simple solution for those who struggle with gripping wheelchair rims, but with traditional funding avenues difficult to pursue, crowdfunding presented an attractive option. Unfortunately, however, the Grippoz Kickstarter campaign was only able to raise £5195 of the team’s £22,500 goal.
What are the downsides?
According to Chris Buckingham, around 50% of crowdfunded projects fail to reach their targets. Reaching the right audience at the right time can be key, since the success or otherwise of the campaign will likely be dependent on current industry trends.
“The London 2012 Paralympics legacy is a prime example,” Buckingham says. “Warwick University’s crowdfunding campaign to fund more high-tech racing wheelchairs was, and is, quite a sexy concept, so it’s no surprise they successfully reached their target. Compare that to the MarioWay campaign – a steam-punk style upright hands-free wheelchair, which didn’t. There were other issues with the MarioWay, but the ‘X factor’ was on the side of the high-tech option following the London Paralympics.”
Buckingham goes on to note that, “The growing popularity of crowdfunding can pose other problems. As the number of campaigns increases, getting your project heard above all the other clutter becomes more difficult.”
The way ahead
For specialists like Buckingham, crowdfunding is still very much in growth mode, and unlikely to ever replace banks or venture capitalists. “Even so, there is a lot of great science being done at the moment, especially in the disability living aids and assistive technology products arena,” he concedes. “Fuse that with open technological advances, and I think this is a really exciting time for the field.”
However, Mark McCusker, Chairman of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and CEO of Texthelp, is dubious about the impact crowdfunding can have on assistive technology due to the niche nature of the market. “The idea may be initially attractive,” he says. “A successful crowdfunding campaign would mean that the people who need the product would eventually receive it. But how do you target such a market? There is no shortage of crowdfunding websites, but if all you had to do was stick a project on a funding website, then everyone would do it.”
However, Jackie Brierton – Enterprise Coordinator at the Perthshire-based enterprise service GrowBiz – takes a more optimistic view. “There is now a big market for adapted products. Crowdfunding has become more popular and easier to access at a time when bank funding has become more difficult to access. And the great thing about it all is that it’s fundamentally about improving lives and using social enterprise to take an idea to the market.”
Further details about Minivation can be found at www.minivation.co; Chris Buckingham’s forthcoming book, Crowdfunding Intelligence: A Practical Guide to Creating a Crowdfunding Campaign is due for publication in May 2015
When crowdfunding goes wrong
AME Communicate offers three app-based products for people who are visually-impaired, hearing-impaired and non native English speakers. They comprise AME Sight (an all-in-one screen magnifier, reader and character recognition app), AME Translate (which enables users to communicate in other languages via pre-loaded phrases and words) and AME BSL (a British Sign Language interpreter and translator).
Though now a successful company with a number of well-known clients, including the BBC, AME Communicate hasn’t always done so well. Recalling a crowdfunding campaign previously pursued by the company, CEO Chris Telesford says, “We realised quite quickly that crowdfunding may not have been the best idea. When we looked at the other products out there they were all mainstream concepts, often fashion-related. When you create something which no one has thought of, people are less happy to invest.”
The crowdfunding campaign may have had a disappointing response, but the company’s products went on to generate interest among developers, partners and manufacturers across the world. “Crowdfunding didn’t allow us to fully represent our goals and show the products off to their best advantage,” Teleford admits. “But in the end, it didn’t hinder us at all. We do a lot of business in the US and are currently working on a fourth product, an indoor Satnav for the blind.”
Find out more at www.amecommunicate.com
When crowdfunding goes right
BrainInHead is an app developed by the Autism Diagnostic Research Centre (ADRC) – a not-for-profit company based in Southampton that helps users manage their everyday anxieties.
“BrainInHand helps users deal with potentially stressful situations in much the same way a parent or psychologist would,” says ADRC CEO, David Fry. “Those who use it are the ones needing the most support, so it serves as an extra safety net in addition to their usual team of support workers and professionals. It also monitors mood, so when anxiety levels get too high, the system alerts the user’s nominated supporter.”
The software – billed as being able to provide ‘cognitive behavioural therapy in your pocket’ – enables users to create schedules and solve daily challenges whilst monitoring their moods and anxieties. Since launching in 2013 it has been adopted by several UK schools, one county council and four NHS trusts. It is also currently being piloted by the National Autistic Society and members of Autism Alliance.
“We wanted to offer the product more widely due to the social impact it was having, so the crowdfunding was as much for participation as it was for raising money and expanding our reach,” Fry explains. The campaign ultimately led to £10,000 being successfully raised via Crowdcube in addition to the project’s £150k grant.
“Being able to support people in achieving more in education and work is a particular focus for us, [in which] BrainInHand plays a key role,” Fry adds. “It can help manage other conditions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and ADHD.”
Find out more at www.adrc.co.uk