“If you can’t stand up, stand out!” One does not need to be handicapped to be inspired by the individualistic spirit of such a phrase. As the tagline for an Irish company that sells a line of designer wheelchair spoke guards, it is pitch perfect.
Isabel and Ailbhe Keane are not just sisters. They are best friends. Their start-up, Izzy Wheels, is an example of homegrown synergy. Isabel is a beautiful young woman who happens to rely on a wheelchair as her primary means of transportation. Ailbhe is an Art College graduate whose final project, inspired by a sister born with Spina Bifida, was conceived to “empower the lives of people living with a long-term health condition” Fueled by Isabel’s frustration with the inability to personalize her wheelchair, Izzy Wheels was born this past September.
You might be tempted to see Izzy Wheels as a way to combat stigma. If so, you would be 100% correct. However, if you are a wheelchair user that has longed for an option to match your outfit, or just a means to express yourself, Izzy Wheels has you in mind. Each spoke guard showcases a limited-edition work of art and can easily be interchanged with others via an easy-to-use Velcro strap.
Innovation, not to mention over 20 designs by top artists, turns out to be all you need to free minds. This is a case where form happily triumphs over function. The natural progression is personalization. According to Ailbhe, Izzy Wheels is working on a digital platform that will allow users to build their own designs from an assortment of text, prints, colors and other elements. The sisters hope to launch the platform within the next few months.
Isabel may be one of 40,000 wheelchair users in Ireland, 10 million if you’re counting Europe and the United States. Watch her throw her hands up in glee as she pushes off and it should not surprise you that the project has required very little funding to get off the ground. Thanks to Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers Entrepreneur Development Program, Izzy Wheels has received $17,000, along with workspace and business mentoring.
Most recently, the girls accepted the Accentur’s Leaders of Tomorrow award, after pitching to a panel comprised of leading industry and business representatives. The global management, consulting and professional services company was hoping to expand its annual competition to include more female entrepreneurs. The Keanes ended up taking the grand prize and earning a place in NRDC’s Launchpad program. NRDC, formerly known as the National Digital Research Center, is an early stage investor in tech companies. Its Launchpad program is reserved for start-up companies that demonstrate a business model innovation.
As founder, designer and Creative Director, Ailbhe Keane clearly has a lot to be proud of. Her company, Izzy Wheels, and its Brand Ambassador, Isabel Keane, have caught the eye of some important people. With 2 million new wheelchairs issued each year, in Europe and the U.S., the future looks bright. Most importantly, wheelchair users can be fashion forward thanks to some forward thinking.