Bespoke wheels keep on turning: a student success story

Sabrine Donohoe

Credit: Conor mc cabe silicon republic

College is said to be some of the best years of your life, yet its hurdles can be tough considering the responsibility weighing on your shoulders. This may include anything from assignment stress or worrying about your future, to even having trouble fitting in or making friends.

The success of Izzy Wheels – once a college assignment but now a leading Irish company in creative wheelchair spoke guards, selling to a market of up to 14.5 million wheelchair users across Europe and the US – will inspire anyone, even if just a little.

Now aged 24, founder and Creative Director Ailbhe Keane started the idea of customised wheelchair spoke guards in her final year at The National College of Art and Design, inspired by her little sister Isabel Keane’s imagination as a child wheelchair user.

Izzy was born with spina bifida, a disability that has paralysed her from the waist down. Decorating her plain wheelchair with art materials at home was her way of expressing her bright personality and fashion sense.

For Izzy Wheels, a wheelchair is not just a medical device for her disabled but an extension of the body that shows off creativity and individuality, much like a pair of shoes or a tattoo. “My wheelchair is not what disables me, it is what enables me,” said co-founder and Brand Ambassador Izzy Keane.

“I love to dress colourfully and now thanks to these bespoke guards I can do that without having to deal with my wheelchair clashing with whatever I am wearing. It was something I had to deal with most days until the birth of the Izzy Wheels project”.

Working with big names like Orla Kiely Design or the San Francisco Giants Baseball team, winning the Accenture Leaders of Tomorrow Award and receiving a place on the National Digital Research Centre LaunchPad programme are just some of the milestones these sisters have accomplished.

After launching their online store in September 2016, the Dublin-based company now hopes to launch their ‘Bespoked’ app by the end of this year. It will allow customers to design their own durable, scratch and water-proof spoke guards.

“We get requests for custom designs all the time,” Ailbhe said. “I tried to do them myself at first, but I couldn’t keep up. The sky is the limit with personalised designs, really. People want designs with a favourite activity, a photograph, someone they like, pets, the craziest things. I one time got a request for 100 prawns. Personalisation is powerful.”

Izzy Wheels’ competitors include Küschall, Ottobock, Sunrise Medical, and Quickie; although these brands offer fixed spoke guards designed for children at a cost of €350. Ailbhe and Izzy’s brand image on the other hand promotes pride and positivity for ages six to 35 for €139, using the slogan “If you can’t stand up, stand out”.

“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 give back to their new community by donating a percentage of their sales to the Irish Wheelchair Association, and have been subsequently asked to appear at its recent fashion show.

RTÉ featured Izzy Wheels on their program Nationwide on National Women’s Enterprise Day. The brand was nominated for two awards by the Irish Design Institute in 2016. An award from the Enterprise Ireland Competitive Start Fund means Izzy Wheels will kick-start the company’s expansion. “Things kind of exploded here in Ireland last year,” says Ailbhe. “We got in all the papers; on YouTube; on national television.”

Instagram as a marketing platform spurred attention from both wheelchair and non-wheelchair users alike when Izzy Wheels was first starting out. Ailbhe received a significant number of messages after she posted two photos of Izzy modelling a set of unique spoke guards, which allowed the brand to kick-off.

In terms of the other aspects of starting up your own company, Ailbhe recommends surrounding yourself with like-minded people. “Ireland has a fantastic and exciting start-up scene,” she says, “as a small country, you quickly realise how connected everyone is and it’s easy to find someone who knows someone”.

Despite her specialisation in design and her young age, Ailbhe says she is learning how to manage the many aspects to a successful company: “I’m 24. I never expected to be running a business so young. The fun part is doing the actual designs. The financials, the pitching, the website, the marketing, the photo shoots – I’m still learning to wear all those hats. But I’m surprised how much I like that part as well.”

One thing to be learned from her example is though you may not realise your dream now, working diligently on something you are passionate about will surely help you down the road.

Sabrine Donohoe