These Irish sisters are on a roll with statement style for wheelchairs

11 Sep 2017

From left: Izzy and Ailbhe Keane from Izzy Wheels. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Our latest Start-up of the Week brings a spark of style to wheelchair users’ lives with the help of some world-class designers.

“The idea for Izzy Wheels was inspired by my younger sister, Izzy, who was born with spina bifida,” Ailbhe Keane explained.

“She is paralysed from her waist down and has been a wheelchair user all of her life. Growing up, she found it very frustrating and upsetting that there was nothing available for her to personalise her chair.”

And so it was that Ailbhe Keane, freshly graduated from a course in design, became founder and creative director of Izzy Wheels.

Izzy Wheels produce unique wheel covers for wheelchairs that allow users to express their individuality and personality. The younger Keane sister had always found ways to personalise her wheelchair with crafty use of household decorations and art materials (which was revealed during a slideshow from the two at Inspirefest 2017) but the Izzy Wheels concept is so much more than decorative, and its impact can be incredibly meaningful not just to users, but society as a whole.

“Society has very negative associations with wheelchairs so, together, my sister and I set out to break this mindset down,” said Ailbhe. “Izzy Wheels allow users to match their wheelchairs to their outfits and make a statement about themselves. Having decorated wheels also opens up conversation and addresses the wheelchair in a very positive way.”

The sisters have even devised the perfect tagline for their simple, impactful idea: If you can’t stand up, stand out.

Izzy Wheels by Brosmind

Izzy Wheels designed by Brosmind, modelled by Izzy Keane. Image: Izzy Wheels

Roll Models

To create the bespoke wheel covers sold by Izzy Wheels, the team collaborates with high-profile designers and artists from Ireland and around the world. Their ‘Roll Models’ collections feature names such as Maser, Fuchsia MacAree and Chris Judge. Even queen of patterns Orla Kiely has agreed to design a set in time for Christmas.

The designs are printed on lightweight plastic, so they add no extra weight to the wheelchair. They are digitally printed, laminated and given a special coating to ensure they are waterproof, fade-proof and scratch-proof. They attach directly to the spokes of the wheelchair with velcro straps, all of which makes them a stand-out product for wheelchair users looking for an aesthetic boost.

At Inspirefest, Ailbhe explained how many other wheelchair accessories are permanent fixtures, requiring dismantling of the wheelchair to attach them. They are also, more often than not, designed by hospitals for children, and therefore missing the edgy style that Izzy Wheels has brought on stream. Finally, the other accessories on the market can be prohibitively expensive, while Izzy Wheels has a price point reflective of the purchase of a solid new handbag or a good winter coat: $165.

With that business proposition, I’m not surprised when Ailbhe informs me that Izzy Wheels is live and generating revenue. “We have already shipped to 20 countries and 80pc of our sales are coming from the US,” she said.

Izzy Wheels by Karol Banach

Izzy Wheels designed by Karol Banach, modelled by Izzy Keane. Image: Izzy Wheels

User empowerment

What’s more, every time an Izzy Wheels set is purchased, it’s giving back to its community of users. “We donate a percentage of all of our sales from [the Roll Models] collections to disability charities in Ireland. The idea behind Roll Models is to make wheelchair users feel empowered, confident and considered.”

These users the Keane sisters are targeting are plenty in number, too. In the US alone, where the brand is doing its best sales, 2.2m people depend on a wheelchair for day-to-day tasks and mobility, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The brand’s wide-ranging demographic stretches from age six to 35 and, while the sisters originally saw the product focusing on women buyers, a “massive response” from male users prompted work on new collections for boys and men.

‘Izzy Wheels is more than just a business that sells a product. We are creating a voice to one of the world’s most underserved communities of people’

“A wheelchair costs €10,000 to purchase and none of that spend is on its aesthetic. This is a massively underserved market in many ways, including fashion,” said Ailbhe.

“Izzy Wheels is more than just a business that sells a product. We are creating a voice to one of the world’s most underserved communities of people. We are breaking down barriers and opening people’s minds. We are not only making beautiful wheel covers, we are generating confidence, awareness, self-esteem and empowerment for wheelchair users all over the world.”

Sister act

I get the impression that the inspiration for Izzy Wheels would have amounted to nothing without Ailbhe’s creative vision to mould it. The team are now based in the NDRC, sharing office space at the Digital Hub with the Silicon Republic team, bringing a distinct burst of style to the Dublin 8 business campus.

Unsurprisingly, Ailbhe studied visual communications in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and said she has always been passionate about art and illustration. She was naturally geared towards a career in design and began working on Izzy Wheels as part of her final-year project. She left college in 2016 with a first-class honours in design and a first-class business idea ready to roll.

“The project had created such a stir around it that year that I decided to open an online store and turn the project into a business,” Ailbhe explained.

Izzy Keane and Ailbhe Keane at Inspirefest 2017

From left: Izzy and Ailbhe Keane present their start-up at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Izzy, the other half of the sibling duo, serves as brand ambassador, and it’s not merely a decorative mantle. On stage at Inspirefest, she showcased her brightly coloured wheels with an infectious confidence. Providing the final word in a pitch perfect presentation, Izzy explained: “My wheelchair is not what disables me, it is what enables me.”

Ailbhe later added: “[Izzy] uses her wheelchair to make a statement about herself. She has always had the utmost respect for her wheelchair because without it, she could not get around.”

Making a key feature of a person’s independence and mobility something that can also carry a spark of their personality with it can be transformative, and you can see the confidence exude from Izzy as she spins her wheels on the stage.

Izzy is also studying sociology, politics, law and French at NUI Galway and, according to Ailbhe, “is determined to prove to other wheelchair users that you should never let your disability hold you back”.

Izzy Wheels by Jess Phoenix

Izzy Wheels designed by Jess Phoenix, modelled by Izzy Keane. Image: Izzy Wheels

Between study and the business, these young women will no doubt be kept busy. They have captured the imagination of the world’s media, starting with a viral video from Insider that was viewed 13m times in just one week. The past year has seen them secure collaborations with 22 designers, and win numerous awards, including first place in the Accenture Leaders of Tomorrow competition. Now, they are celebrating the recent award of an Enterprise Ireland Competitive Start Fund and are seeking to raise further investment in the coming months.

“Ireland has a fantastic and exciting start-up scene. There is so much support and encouragement here in Ireland for start-ups. As a small country, you quickly realise how connected everyone is and it’s easy to find someone who knows someone,” said Ailbhe.

“My advice is to surround yourself with other self-starters. It can get lonely starting your own business because it usually means that you are working alone. I find being in NDRC is wonderful because I am surrounded by other start-ups going through the same highs and lows and you can really learn a lot from each other, even if your businesses are completely different.”

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic