Reinventing the wheelchair: Sometimes it pays to take the cash

Richard Farleigh
I'VE been doing this for four years. I've put a huge amount of money, my money, my wife's money, which is our future, on the line. I can't make a mistake now. I don't want to be the founder that ended up with the tiny little minority share of the thing he started, while other people made all the cash."

These were the clear sentiments Andrew Slorance made to the BBC in its documentary, The Perfect Wheelchair, which aired last week. He was explaining why he rejected my offer for expertise and investment in return for a 50 per cent interest in his carbon fibre wheelchair invention. Was he right? His wheelchair certainly looks much better than any I'd ever seen. Instead of being all chunky, metallic and industrial looking, it looks like something Batman would use - black, sleek, strong and lightweight. And there is no doubt the invention is his baby. It is a heart-rending story. Andrew fell out of a tree at the age of 14 and lost the use of his legs. For the 24 years that he's been wheelchair bound he's wanted to design a better one, and so he did, inspired by Formula 1 racing cars.

Then, four years ago, convinced the design could be commercialised, he left his job as a film editor to pursue the business. He was given government grants and, when they ran out, he remortgaged the family home for £50,000.

The problem was finding a way to reduce the production cost of the wheelchairs. Indications were that it would need to retail at a staggering £20,000; more than eight times competitors' prices. Andrew went through about six prototype manufacturers, always trying to get the cost lower. Getting his target weight of about 6 kilos was also a big challenge and he struggled to do better than the normal, non-carbon fibre chairs. He argued with many of the suppliers before moving onto the next, blaming their inability to meet his specifications on them only being interested in doing their day job, no more. They responded that he kept changing the design.

Interestingly too, he didn't seek the opinion of other wheelchair users, and at one point said "it doesn't matter if I go to a user group and they don't like it, I'll go on regardless". So when Andrew tried to eventually demo it at a trade fair, it was perhaps no real surprise that a potential customer hesitated about the design.

She was also worried when told the price. The Beeb interviewed Andrew's family, who talked about the strain, emotionally and financially, on all of them.

So I said to Andy, the value of expertise, experience and contacts is worth far more than inventors often think. And investors' cash, like their own cash, represents a lot of hard work and sacrifices.

Sometimes the smaller piece of a successful pie is the best business strategy on the menu.

Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.