‘Rotterdam is more international than other Dutch cities’
Wheelair established a branch in the Rotterdam area in February. From here, the Scottish medtech company, which makes revolutionary cooling systems for wheelchairs, is striving for faster innovations in the wheelchair market and for allowance payments for its preventative use. ‘Rotterdam was the best fit for our company on all fronts.’
Corien Staels was the kind of teenager who declared that she was going to be a CEO someday. Of what type of company? She had no idea. Until five years ago, during her studies at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, the now 28-year-old native of Flanders met a teacher who was a wheelchair user and would later become her thesis coach. The problems of overheating and sweating that affected people in wheelchairs came up during their many conversations. A serious and very common problem, as it turned out. It not only causes discomfort, but can also lead to bedsores and even to muscle spasms, nausea, fatigue and heat stroke. Dealing with the consequences of these issues involves considerable costs. For example, research shows that the UK spends 4% of its healthcare budget on these issues. Other countries have comparable figures.
From a clothing line to a revolutionary cooling system
'There had to be a solution, I thought,' says Staels. 'I couldn't understand that at the time, in 2015, nothing could be done about it. That wheelchair users had to use icepacks and garden hoses in order to cool down, while car manufacturers were already offering cooled car seats.’ What started as an idea for a cooling clothing line for wheelchair users evolved into the realisation of a revolutionary cooling system, which is installed in the seats of wheelchairs.
Gap in the market
Staels devised a system that provides air circulation in the space between the user’s body and the wheelchair. This system directly alters the microclimate precisely where the discomfort occurs. The WheelAir system can reduce the localised temperature between the user’s body and seat/backrest by eight degrees Celsius within thirty minutes and, when used preventatively, can inhibit the build-up of any form of heat and moisture. It turns out that the solution, which greatly enhances the lives of many wheelchair users (Staels: ‘That's what I hear from everyone who uses our solution'), responds to a huge gap in the market. So, Staels decided in 2016, during her master's degree at Glasgow University, to set up her own company, Wheelair, supported by an Enterprise Fellowship from the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
‘Make It Happen really suits us’
Four years after its initial launch, Wheelair opened an office in the Netherlands in February 2020. From here, the company will be able to serve European partners and customers more easily, expanding its activities and accelerating its growth. The choice for Rotterdam didn't happen overnight. Wheelair was helped in the establishment process by the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency, Rotterdam Partners and InnovationQuarter.
'I visited a total of six cities,' says Staels. 'Rotterdam suited us best on all fronts. Its location is central and it's a working-class city, similar to Glasgow. As far as I'm concerned, the slogan "Make It Happen" says it all. That mentality suits us. Rotterdam is also more international than other Dutch cities. A lot of languages are spoken here; which is, on the one hand, useful for our business and, on the other, for our employees who come to settle here. It's easier for them to integrate.’
Another important reason for choosing the Netherlands was the "excellent collaboration between entrepreneurs, universities and hospitals", according to Staels. 'This is far better in the Netherlands than in many other countries. In Rotterdam, we hope to benefit from the presence of an excellent university, leading hospitals and many entrepreneurs in the medtech sector. There is a great thirst for innovation around here. I'm eager to get to know the other partners of Life Science & Health 010, which unfortunately hasn't happened yet due to the corona crisis. We are a research & development company, so collaboration with others is vital to us.’
Woman with a mission
Staels' mission is clear: 'We want to ensure that overheating problems among wheelchair users becomes a thing of the past.’ Wheelair does not build cushions itself, but supplies components to wheelchair manufacturers. The company is gradually gaining a foothold in the wheelchair market, which Staels describes as "very conservative". The market is currently dominated by a number of large players, which makes it difficult for younger companies to break through. This often slows down innovation, even though it’s a market that could certainly use it. It is also an industry driven by allowance schemes, which is a long and expensive process for a startup.’
Young and energetic
In addition, Staels is fighting to extend allowances for its preventative use. 'I am heavily committed to this, because our solution can work within the scope of preventative medicine. Unfortunately, health care is still far more focused on treatment rather than prevention. This is frustrating, because wheelchair users can often only benefit from our product once they have already developed serious ailments which were easily prevented. So, you need a lot of patience in this industry, fortunately I'm young and full of energy. Moreover, Rotterdam is on all fronts the best city from where we can pursue our mission. So, I look to our future very positively.’