Highland Venture Capital

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Big day for revolutionary wheelchair

Carbon Black System of Nairn has reached a major milestone with the delivery of its “first commercially sold bespoke wheelchair” on February 7th – described by company founder and designer Andrew Slorance as “a big day in the history of the revolution of the wheelchair.”

Slorance says Rosie Woodward of Essex was thrilled with her new chair: “It was a great day and very fulfilling to see that a bit of smart design can make a real difference. Rosie could not have been happier and I feel very fortunate to have been part of helping her feel empowered. All the hard work of the last six years to make Carbon Black a reality was made worth it today.”

The revolutionary Carbon Black wheelchair is “designed to empower,” says Slorance, who was paralysed when he was 14 years old, after falling out of a tree. “The day I was paralysed was a bad day, but a worse day was the day I had to go out in public for the very first time as a wheelchair user. I felt the chair robbed me of my identity. I was no longer Andrew the teenager with many interests and aims, I was the boy in the wheelchair,” he writes on the company’s website. “It became who I was.”

Slorance was not trained as a designer but knew from personal experience that the standard approach to design could be greatly improved – starting with a blank canvas and a head full of ideas. He set up his company six years ago after a 20-year career in television, but his journey started when he was sixteen years old and “decided that one day I would re-invent the wheelchair.”

The main aim was to make the wheelchair cool and sexy, two words that wouldn’t normally be associated with wheelchairs to do this the chair had to be as minimal as possible, Slorance explains. We literally mould the chair to the user’s requirements, using carbon fibre – a “miracle” material normally used for Formula One cars. Using carbon fibre enables the chairs to be strong at the same time as light (about 7.5kg) and thus easy to push, with an “unobtrusive” streamlined design that means the user is seen, not the wheelchair.

Other chairs have metal components which have to be oiled, but the Carbon Black chairs never need to be oiled.

Other innovative features include an LED lighting system to show the way ahead, luminous axles which make it easy to assemble in the dark, smart fabrics and clothes guards.

“It’s a highly designed piece of desirable equipment, not a style stifling medical device,” says Slorance.

The seat itself is part of the structure, creating the strongest, stiffest chair possible, using the fewest components possible. The chair is also “ultra-compact” when dismantled, and Slorance describes it as “the easiest manual wheelchair in the world to push” – a claim which will be tested by a scientific study. We are in discussions with the University of the West of Scotland who would like to perform a study on the energy efficiency of Carbon Black.

Every Carbon Black wheelchair is made to order, so buyers can create a chair that looks, feels and performs exactly how they want it. The first commercial customer, Rosie chose 28-inch full carbon wheels with ergonomic carbon push rim profiles, LED forward illuminating lights, carbon fibre foot angle adjuster, medium and large carbon fibre backrest supports and two under-seat pouches with black tint gloss finish. The chair was also built to fit her with centre of gravity (main wheel position) as she wanted.

The Carbon Black chairs cost more than “regular lightweight designs,” with prices starting at about £9,500 compared to roughly £5,000-6,000 for a standard design, but Slorance does not want to “compromise the ethos” of the company’s approach to design. Every chair is custom-built to individual requirements and supplied with a number of options – e.g. different footrest. Lights, backrest choices, wheel sizes and push rims.

Slorance wants the chairs to be competitively priced as well as make people say “wow” when they see the design. Because they use more carbon fibre than any other design and are all made by hand, pricing will always be a challenge, however. Economies of scale may help reduce the price of some parts but the main aim is simply to make better wheelchairs than anyone else, and make customers happy.

The Carbon Black engineers are reported to be “working flat out moulding and assembling chairs of many different sizes and configurations,”

The layup of carbon fibre (orientation and amount of carbon used) can greatly enhance and customise the performance qualities of the chair. Carbon Black engineers have developed a layup that gives suspension qualities to the chair in the same way carbon does to F1 cars without adding any weight or cost. The new suspension layout is now standard on all Carbon Black chairs. Bespoke layups will in time mean carbon black can offer a customised feel and behaviour to a chair fine tuned to what the user wants.

Including a new ultralight chair with special shock absorption suspension which comes at no extra cost and adds no extra weight.

Carbon Black is not only moulding its chairs to the needs of its users but breaking the mould when it comes to design – and changing people’s attitudes to wheelchairs. The “Ferrari of wheelchairs” is also building up a significant fan base, with over 1,000 followers on Facebook and a new website set up by “fans” round the world.

This week, one fan wrote to Slorance, saying: “Just wanted to drop the whole team a great big well done, dreams do come true, you created your dream chair, and now are fulfilling others’ dreams by giving them the chance to own a chair that I am sure will improve all users lives by so much, I know it will mine, and thus your dreams will make mine true too.”

Slorance is creating much more than a wheelchair that looks good and also is easy to push – he seems to be starting a movement. The ‘boy in a wheelchair’ is driving the future of wheelchair design and in the process changing people’s attitudes not only to wheelchairs but also more importantly the people who use them.

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