Alex Papanikolaou: Innovator behind the next generation power wheelchair

Freedom One Wheelchair was created out of the difficulties Alex encountered having cerebral palsy and being a power chair user himself.

by Portia Ladrido

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Alex using the Freedom One Wheelchair during one of his travels. © Alex Papanikolaou

Alex Papanikolaou,  an entrepreneur from Glasgow, wasn’t going to allow his life to stop because of the limitations of having to use a power chair. He wanted to explore the world, talk to strangers in another language and experience cultures beyond his own. After visiting 35 countries, he went back to Scotland eager to improve more lives than he could have ever imagined. The Freedom One Wheelchair was born.

INKLINE: It seems like Freedom One really was created because of your experience in travelling around the world and seeing the things that could help people improve their way of life. Could you take us back to these trips?

Alex: Travelling was certainly the main driver that made me want to start Freedom One Life but it wasn’t just that, it was really a desire to create a product that adds independence and freedom to people’s lives, whether they want to go to China or just get to their work, or the pub!

I visited 35 countries in 5 years, including a year in Australia, Singapore and Dubai. I had always wanted to travel and it started with my first trip to New York when I was 18.

I: During these travels, which scenarios gave you the light bulb moments to create Freedom One wheelchair? Also, how did you come up with the name?

A: Usually breaking down! And being stranded in all sorts of places either due to breaking down or not being able to find transport to fit the big heavy chair in. When it broke down, I either had to find a way to fix it locally, or the dreaded case was having to order parts because they were so hard to get.

I always tell the story of waiting 6 weeks for a motor in Singapore. Or 6 weeks for a part the size of a golf ball in Sydney because they sent it by sea!

I: How did you come up with the name?  

A: The name evolved from the concept of freedom, and that people have one life to make the most of, regardless of disability.

I: Did you have any other inspiration in creating this product besides your realisations during your travels? If yes, what else inspired you? 

A: Yes, it was really coming back home and asking other powerchair users – is it just me? Am I just a crazy traveller who breaks everything? And the answer from every user both locally and online was no.

Pretty much everyone has horror stories about being stranded, some even never go on holiday in case their chair breaks. It was this overwhelming evidence that the current chairs are not fit for purpose, traveller or not, that pushed me to want to do it better.

I: How long did the planning stage take? Did you ever felt that it was too ambitious for you to delve into this kind of production?

A: Well this is our third year and it really took me a year after coming home from travelling with no network and no money to start to establish myself in the business community and learned how funding worked and how to access it.

I: What were your utmost concerns when developing the Freedom One wheelchair? And how did you transcend any doubts that you might have had in pursuing this? 

A: When I first started I was a bit naive, and thought it would all be up and running in a year! So my journey has really been one of learning and gaining experience of building a business.

The usual doubts are not enough money and it’s taking too long. I am pretty determined/stubborn depending on who you ask so have always managed to transcend doubts. Being a cause I am so close to and care about also helps very much.

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I: How have you developed this really positive and motivating way of looking at things? Were there specific factors that gave you that kind of mindset?

A: I don’t class myself as a positive person, I see myself as a realist and looking at things the way they are, not better or worse. That being said, due to how many problems I’ve had to solve over the years, I kind of automatically generate solutions to any problem I encounter and see a way it can be fixed or solved. There isn’t always a solution mind you, but it helps to be focussed on solutions and ways forward, rather than the problem itself.

Leading from that, something that helps me very much is knowing that the past and anything that has happened cannot be changed and is done, and focussing on what I can do now and in the future is what keeps me moving forward.

I: Seeing as you’ve established recruitment agencies for disabled people in the UAE and being a part of the companies training for disabled people, it seems your confidence in Freedom One as your cause is really palpable.What do you think is the biggest source of this confidence? And how can one develop this?

A: This is a simple one, it’s doing something you truly believe can make a positive impact to others and contributes something meaningful. If you can pass the famous test of being told you are crazy by everyone, and it’s impossible and can’t be done and you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you still believe in your idea after that, then that’s a good start.

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Alex is a believer that the most valuable resource in any business is your team. © Alex Papanikolaou

I: If you were to talk to 20-something young adults or those with disabilities, what would you say to them? 

A: We do sadly live in a prejudiced world, and a disabled person usually has to work extra hard to convince everyone to be taken seriously. However that prejudice is similar to one that women or minorities face. There are ways around it and it ultimately comes down to your confidence. If you believe in yourself, so will others, and you can find ways round practical needs you may need because of your disability.

Firstly I’d say do something you really believe in. Don’t be swayed by what your parents or universities expect you to do, especially if they recommend jobs due to your limitations with a disability. They are not you and only you can decide what you can and can’t do.

Whatever you decide to do, your team will be your most valuable resource. Having a good team of people around you who share your vision and add value is key, and actually more important than the actual product or service. With the right team you can get through any challenge and celebrate the wins together.

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