A new spin on wheelchair design
Story and photo by Dana Lacey dandyhorse magazine, Summer 2009 issue
In a spacious, surprisingly clean workshop in an old part of Liberty Village, two locals have reinvented the wheel.
Canadians Jeff Adams (pictured) and Christian Bagg are the founders of Marvel, a Toronto company that designs and builds the world’s first fully-adjustable wheelchairs using concepts borrowed from high-end bike engineers.
Unlike bicycles — which have evolved from the pedal-less dandyhorse to featherlight speed demons — wheelchairs haven’t changed much since their inception in the 1930s. They are traditionally built made-to-measure,
which is great for business suits but not for a chair you use all day, every day. “Every tube is custom cut to your measurement, which is enormously expensive and slow,” Adams says. You can’t change the chair once it’s built, either. (Think of it as welding your seat post into one position forever.)
“These designs don’t take into consideration a body’s changing needs, or the funding model that dictates the number of times a person can get a new chair,” he says. In Canada, with the very best insurance, you’re lucky to get one chair every two years. But generally a person is covered for one every five years. “So in that five years you can’t gain or lose weight,” he says, “And don’t even think about sitting in a different position.”
Adams — a buff, heavily-tattooed man with a tuft of red hair — was nine when he got his first wheelchair. He has spent most of his life racing on the National team and pro circuit. He’s a three-time gold medal Paralympian, and six-time World Champion. He couldn’t understand why all the great sports technology wasn’t applied to everyday design. He met Bagg, a machinist and amateur racer who shared his vision for a better chair, and Marvel was born.
A person’s first chair tends to be large and stiff, so they can get used to steering, maneuverability and centre of gravity — but it doesn’t take long before they get the hang of it and want something that responds better. “You can climb stairs if you’re in the right chair,” Adams says. (He would know: in 2002 he climbed the 1776 stairs of the CN Tower. Two years later he climbed the Acropolis in Greece.)
Bagg broke his back snowboarding in his 20s, and built himself snow-friendly contraptions that allowed him to keep up with his friends on the hill. He acts as Marvel’s lead designer, while Adams covers the business end and designs racing chairs. Adams built his own racer, a slick black beauty that screams speed.
In 2006, armed with a few prototype chairs, the duo approached Phil White, co-founder of Canuck bike designer and manufacturer Cervélo Cycles Inc. White was sold right away: “we literally shook hands over the chair,” Adams says. With the backing of a major bike company, Marvel was able to jump-start the start-up: Cervélo provided initial capital and office space as well as access to their ample supply chain, accountants, engineers and famous testing facilities (all Marvel chairs meet bike-industry standards for durability and strength).
Their partnership with Marvel marks new territory for Cervélo, but wheelchairs seemed a natural fit with their attention-to-design attitude and reputation for putting pros on bikes straight from the shelf (if you have the cash, you can buy the exact bike that earned the yellow jersey in 2008’s Tour de France).
“Cervélo makes carbon porn,” Adams says, “It does not alter the existence of anyone but the top racers. But with Marvel, they saw an opportunity to apply their skills to a product that not only is the best in the industry, but is something that changes people’s lives.”
Turns out designing a wheelchair isn’t all that different than designing a bike. “You’re dealing with the same principals and concepts,” Adams says. “You have to account for body shape, comfort and reliability.” They followed the bike industry’s lead and ditched titanium (the wheelchair standard) for aluminum, which is more malleable and allows design innovations that titanium does not. And because the chairs are customizable but not actually custom, they can be built quickly in assembly line fashion.
Marvel now has 80 retailers, half in Canada and half in the U.S., and customers are ecstatic when they get their new chair within days. “We’ve sent chairs to people within a week of ordering, and they call us thinking we made a mistake,” Adams says, “They’re not used to it being so fast.” Speed is important in this industry, he stresses. “When it’s your bike being built, it’s not exactly urgent. But you don’t want to have someone waiting two months for an essential means of locomotion.” They’ve hired two full-time staff to keep up with the steady stream of orders, and build four wheelchairs a day.
Because both use a chair to get around, Bagg and Adams understand how people interact with their four-wheeled ride. They made three simple yet
vital changes to the basic chair design. First, they made it modular and compatible — each piece is detachable and therefore replaceable as
wear and tear or upgrades are required, giving the chair a much longer life. Second, nearly everything can be adjusted: a single chair can accommodate
heights under five feet to well over six feet tall. Until Marvel, no wheelchair had an adjustable seat. “Bikes have had them for over 100 years,” Adams
says, “why can’t chairs?” They borrowed (and later kept) Cervélo engineers, who came up with a concept that worked.
The static seat is one of many industry mysteries the pair have encountered. They also couldn’t figure out why chairs didn’t have suspension, their
third vital modification. “Can you name another vehicle that doesn’t have suspension?” Adams asks, “Skateboards have it. So do office chairs.” There
has been a lot of anti-suspension huffing in the industry, which echoes the naysayers who fought against suspension in bikes 20 years ago: too heavy,
too slow, too expensive. But it turned out great for mountain bikes, and it works in Marvel’s chairs. Thanks to their partnership with Cervélo, they
already had top-of-the-line shocks to work with. It was just a matter of tweaking before they found success. “Suspension makes an enormous
difference in comfort when you’re sitting all day,” Adams says, “you can lock it, you can change how bouncy it is, adjust for the rider’s weight…
all with tools you can find at your bike shop.”
So, with all the bells and whistles, just how heavy is it? “It’s like comparing apples to oranges. We use more parts, including an entire suspension system…and we use aluminum, which is heavier than titanium.” Yet altogether, a Marvel wheelchair weighs just half a pound more than the lightest chair on the market.
“We didn’t invent this,” Adams says, “We look to the cycling world for inspiration. It’s not rocket science.”
Maybe not, but with Cervélo’s support, Marvel is quite literally lifting the wheelchair industry out of the Dark Ages.