Wheelchair maker aims to be heavyweight in lightweights
July 31, 2013

Financial Post – July 2013.

Eric Simoneau, CEO of Motion Composites says the company has bragging rights to the world’s lightest foldable wheelchair. Marc Dussault photo

Eric Simoneau was in Dusseldorf, Germany, at the world’s biggest wheelchair trade show, when he had the opportunity to prove the superiority of his product. “There was a huge company, and they were bragging that they had the lightest wheelchair,” he recalled of the October 2012 event.

So we hung their product on our scale, and we said, ‘Nope, sorry, this year a Canadian company has the lightest wheelchair.’ ”

Mr. Simoneau, chief executive of Quebec-based Motion Composites, contends the company’s Veloce is the world’s lightest folding wheelchair. But his goals for the 32-person company he started with a fellow Quebec university student eight years ago, are for it to become the largest wheelchair seller in Canada within five years and expand into 16 more countries — in addition to the nine it is now selling in.

Mr. Simoneau and his co-founder, David Gingras, knew little about wheelchair design, but grew interested in the topic after learning that many wheelchairs weigh up to 45 pounds.

“We found that ridiculous, especially when you think of all the high-end sporting goods that are made of carbon fibre, such as road bicycles and hockey sticks,” Mr. Simoneau said. “High-end sporting goods are so light and so strong, and the wheelchairs being used are so heavy and clunky.

“It made no sense.”

In 2004, the pair set out to create a lighter wheelchair. They conducted their initial research and development for the following couple of years, while remaining full-time students.

To fund their efforts, they entered five different business plan competitions, and won all five, netting $52,000 in prize money, which they added to the cash they earned while working part-time at a cold storage warehouse. “That was a rough time,” Mr. Simoneau said.

By 2007, they had a rough design but needed more money to build a prototype. Jean Shoiry, managing partner of Quebec’s CorpoSana Capital, recalled seeing the initial design on a laptop. “They had a concept. It was really a pure startup,” said Mr. Shoiry, whose $30-million venture fund derives two-thirds of its funding from the Quebec government. Despite their rawness, he was impressed with the “step-by-step and very pragmatic” plan they presented for turning their concept into a business.

He was also attracted to their larger goal. “The first objective was to improve the quality of life of the users, and that has been [achieved],” he said. “We see great potential for growth.”

After raising $1-million, including about $500,000 from CorpoSana, Mr. Simoneau and Mr. Gingras built their first wheelchair, the Helio. The Helio was approved for sale in Quebec in 2008 and approvals quickly followed for other provinces.

The company, which is based in Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, a village located north of Montreal, now produces Veloce. “It’s definitely the best folding wheelchair that we sell,” said Nicholas Forrester, a manager with Ontario Medical Supply.

He began selling Motion Composites chairs five years ago. At that time, the chairs made up just 10% of his sales in the folding wheelchair category. Today, they comprise close to 60% — about 140 chairs a year.

The chairs are lightweight, portable, easy to propel, and suitable for users ranging from “pediatrics to geriatrics,” he said.

Testimonies like Mr. Forrester’s are fuelling sales. “That has been the motor of our growth. There are two ways to grow: either you’ve got a lot of money to do advertising, or you’ve got a good product and people talk about it,” Mr. Simoneau said. “We’ve done the latter — satisfy customers.”

While the company hopes to be selling in the United States within six months, it isn’t without its challenges. Its chairs, which retail for roughly $3,500, are custom-built for each user. That means speedy, mass production is difficult. The company is now implementing a 48-hour turn-around program. “It’s a huge challenge for products that are fully custom,” Mr. Simoneau said.

The company expects to sell more than 2,500 chairs this year, up from a few hundred in 2008; and it forecasts sales of $5-million for 2013, up from $200,000 in 2008.

“Our sales are exploding,” Mr. Simoneau said. “We’re having a very good year.”

The company is also working on widening the product line beyond the Helio and Veloce, and expand its Canadian presence (Motion Composites currently has 11% market share in Canada).

“I truly believe that within five years we can become the No. 1 Canadian wheelchair company,” he said, adding that further innovation will be essential.

“We’ve got five full-time engineers, which for us is a huge expense, but we believe the attraction to our product is innovation. We’re making a very innovative product and we need to keep investing.”