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Equality Through Innovation: The Problem Solver

Alex Papanikolaou

Equality Through Innovation is a new blog series profiling inspirational social innovators working in Glasgow and the West of Scotland to tackle inequalities in unique, impactful ways. In our first blog, we meet Alex Papanikolaou, who is building a game-changing new electric wheelchair.

Alex Papanikolaou has always had an entrepreneurial spark, trying many different things before finding his big idea.

"From computer repairs to consulting, and even selling photographs on a street stall, I've always loved coming up with ideas and trying them out," he says.

That is, until he started thinking about solving the challenges he faced in his everyday life as a power wheelchair user and saw a gap in the market.

He's now the founder of Freedom One Life, a start-up based in Glasgow's Skypark, which is building a revolutionary new type of electric wheelchair.

The idea was born in 2013 following Alex's return to Scotland after five years travelling and working around the world, visiting a staggering 35 countries and 150 cities. But the biggest obstacle he faced wasn’t a language barrier, a lost passport or a local scam - it was his own wheelchair.

“I had constant problems. Flat tyres, batteries, the entire thing falling apart. In Australia, Singapore, the US, every problem you could think of a hundred times over.”

Alex was born with Athetoid cerebral palsy and has used a wheelchair since he was a child.

He's well aware the average power wheelchair is not built for a busy, active adult. They need to be charged once, if not twice, a day.

"It’s a constant worry for people," Alex says. "I've had to stop in Starbucks and plug in just to get home.”

Although he tries not to be restricted by his wheelchair's limitations and tendency to break down, he knows other wheelchair users are.

"There are people who won't go out just in case the chair breaks down," he says. "If it's raining they think 'what if I break down?', if it's dark they think 'what if I break down?'"

This could all change with the Freedom One Life chair, which will have a much longer range than a traditional power wheelchair.

It also weighs less than the average wheelchair, is built with high quality parts and comes with user-centred customer service.

“I enjoy knowing that this product is going to make a difference to people’s lives, that’s very exciting," Alex says.

For a company that started only five years ago, Freedom One Life has won no shortage of accolades. But of all the awards Alex has picked up along the way, the one that has meant the most was taking out the top prize in the UK’s biggest business funding competition, Scottish EDGE.

In the sixth round of the competition in 2015, more than 250 applicants from across Scotland were narrowed down to 26 finalists. Then out of the 16 winners who received funding, Freedom One Life won the highest investment of £100,000.

Alex had previously won funding through the competition’s youth arm, Young EDGE, but to take the top prize - ahead of hundreds of other companies - was a whole new level of recognition.

“Scottish EDGE was delighted to support Alex with an award of £100,000 to allow him to pursue his vision of developing a game changing next generation wheelchair enabling people to expect and demand the same standard of living and mobility that a non-disabled person takes for granted,” says Scottish EDGE CEO Evelyn McDonald.

Scottish EDGE also introduced Alex to mentors and he is an active member of the alumni network. 

“We’ve loved being part of his journey and are excited that the first batch of wheelchairs will be available in the spring of 2019,” Evelyn says.

The wheelchairs have been through four rounds of prototyping, with one more to go before the launch next year. The test wheelchairs have travelled 5000 kilometres in real world settings and Alex says the feedback from other power wheelchair users has been hugely positive and has driven changes to the design to make their chair as accessible to as many people as possible.

The wheelchairs will first be sold across the UK, with a plan to expand to Scandinavia and the US.

Alex thinks what sets Freedom One Life apart from other companies is its ability to innovate. He says traditional wheelchair manufacturers tend to be part of huge multinationals.

“They have a certain way of doing things. It’s harder for them to innovate whereas we have a completely clean slate,” Alex says. “We’re starting from scratch.”

One way Alex intends for his business to shake up the traditional wheelchair market is through its focus on customer service. Alex is so fixated on user-centred customer service he says it forms 50 per cent of the business.

"From the first point of contact to our aftersales relationship, we want to make sure that our customers feel looked after and in safe hands."

Having this level of support gives people the confidence to be more independent, Alex says.

“Everything we do is about redefining mobility. We want our wheelchair to almost be ‘forgotten about’ and for people to focus on their day/their life and trust that their chair will just work as it should.”

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