Rolling along to success
June 18, 2013

Innovative lightweight, carbon-fibre wheelchair finding a growing market
By Monique Polak, Special to The Gazette June 18, 2013

Eric Simoneau is the CEO of Motion Composites, a Quebec firm that manufactures lightweight carbon fibre folding wheelchairs. He expects the company will make more than $5 million in sales this year and has plans to market the product internationally. Photograph by: Marie-France Coallier , The Gazette

MONTREAL – Most people assume Eric Simoneau got into the wheelchair manufacturing business because he had friends or relatives who used wheelchairs.

Only that was not the case at all. Rather, Simoneau, CEO of Motion Composites, the Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan manufacturer of the world’s most lightweight folding wheelchair, was fascinated by carbon fibre. Lighter and stronger than any metal, carbon fibre is a lightweight material used in advanced composites. Its best-known applications are in the aerospace and automotive industries, though it is also used in the production of high-end sporting goods. “Carbon fibre can improve anything that needs to be lighter and stronger,” said Simoneau, 32.

In 2004, Simoneau was completing a degree in business administration at Université de Montréal’s École des Hautes Études Commerciales. For an assignment that involved creating a business plan, Simoneau brainstormed with two friends, David Gingras and Pierre-André Couture. “We said, ‘Let’s do something out of carbon fibre. We realized that rehab wheelchairs were too heavy. Some weighed up to 45 pounds. Most of the users were seniors, with limited energy. Just because you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you stop living,” Simoneau said.

Simoneau’s team won a slew of business plan contests — and $52,000 in prize money. “We stretched every dollar,” recalled Simoneau, who also invested his earnings from a part-time job as a forklift operator. The money went to purchase computers and raw materials to create a prototype.

“We knew nothing about wheelchairs,” Simoneau admitted. So he turned to the experts, occupational therapists at places like the Institut de Réadaptation de Montréal, now the Institut de Réadaptation Gingras-Lindsay-de-Montréal.

From them, Simoneau learned that folding wheelchairs, though convenient, were heavier and less efficient than rigid non-folding wheelchairs. “Folding wheelchairs required more energy to propel them,” Simoneau explained. So Motion Composites set out to create a lightweight carbon fibre folding wheelchair.

In 2007, the company raised $1 million in financing. Some of that funding came from Corposana, a Sherbrooke-based venture capital firm, as well as from numerous provincial and federal grants. When Simoneau learned grants were available to bring startup companies to areas like Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, a community northeast of Montreal, he opened a 2,200-square-foot production plant there. At first, there were four employees, including Simoneau. Today, the plant has expanded to 10,000 square feet and the company’s team now includes 27 employees and seven sales agents working across Canada. His business partners are Gingras, vice-president of operations, and Luc Hénault, who joined the company in 2011 and is vice-president of sourcing. Couture is the company’s chief of engineering.

Motion Composites brought its first wheelchair to market in 2008. That year, the company did just under $200,000 in sales. Since then, it has produced and sold nearly 5,000 wheelchairs. Simoneau projects that in 2013, the company will do over $5 million in sales. Wheelchairs are tested in a lab with double drum machines that imitate a shaking motion. “We call the lab our torture room for wheelchairs,” Simoneau said.

Each wheelchair is custom made for its user, and retails for about $3,500. The company’s latest model, the Veloce, weighs 8.2 kilograms (18 pounds), making it the world’s lightest folding wheelchair. This May, the wheelchair won the best product innovation award at the Canadian Seating and Mobility Conference in Toronto.

In Quebec, wheelchairs are provided through rehabilitation centres and funded by the Régie de l’assurance du Québec, which every three years selects the products it will fund. Motion Composites got a big break in 2008 when RAMQ selected its wheelchair. In other provinces, dealers specializing in medical equipment handle the assessment of clients needing wheelchairs.

An important part of Firass Mayassi’s job as an occupational therapist at the Institut de Réadaptation Gingras-Lindsay-de-Montréal is to prescribe the right wheelchairs for his clients. “We have a lot of people who drive their own cars and need to be able to fold their wheelchairs and put them into the trunks of their cars – sometimes three or four times a day. Often, these people develop shoulder problems, so a lighter chair is a must and helps them stay as independent as possible,” Mayassi said.

Nicholas Forrester, manager of the rehabilitation division for Ontario Medical Supply, an Ottawa company that sells and distributes medical equipment, was a competitive cyclist before he joined the rehab industry. He is excited about the crossover he is seeing between the bicycle and wheelchair industries. Like Mayassi, Forrester has many clients who can benefit from a lightweight folding wheelchair. “What makes the Motion Composites wheelchairs so good is they have very stiff frames for folding wheelchairs and they’re very lightweight. There are a lot of wheelchair manufacturers out there, but Motion Composites is the most innovative wheelchair manufacturer out there today — and they’re Canadian,” Forrester said.

Simoneau’s goal is for Motion Composites to become Canada’s leading wheelchair producer by 2018. The company recently finalized distribution agreements to export its wheelchairs to Finland, Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. “We expect our wheelchairs to be available in 20 countries by 2018,” Simoneau said.

Despite his company’s success, Simoneau is still out on the road, meeting occupational therapists. “I really feed on feedback. When there’s a problem, there’s potential for an invention,” he said.