Giving the gift of mobility

Olga Barabanova, journalist, marketing expert, a mother of two and creative director of the successful startup Lisaped (manufacturer of children’s bicycles and balance bicycles) is currently focused on social entrepreneurship. She is developing the Kinesis brand and hopes that all people with disabilities would have the opportunity to use lightweight, comfortable, maneuverable and stylish wheelchairs. What hampers the realization of this dream and what bonuses does social business offer?

Olga Barabanova holds two university degrees: in journalism from Moscow State University and in marketing from the Higher School of Economics. However, she does not believe much in wasting several years of one’s life on lectures, seminars and exams because universities do not teach students what is most important: self-analysis, getting to understand yourself, learning to prioritize, understanding what activity is enjoyable and what is really important. To Olga, it is entrepreneurship. In 2009, Olga and her husband Stanislav Reginsky founded a company manufacturing interior and phone accessorizes made of Italian felt. Three years later, the couple sold their business, but soon opened a new one. The idea for the new startup was suggested by their daughter, Masha. When she turned five, her parents decided to buy her a bicycle and were surprised that children’s bikes were as heavy as adult ones, and also uncomfortable and unsafe.

Joining efforts with a family friend and young father Sergei Kopernik, Olga and Stanislav founded the company Lisaped to manufacture lightweight children’s bicycles. They invested a total of $30K in the project. The Lisaped bikes, despite their high price (from RUR 10K to 29K ($162-470) are snapped up in an instant. This year, the company sold 6K bikes and its turnover was RUR 30 mio ($486K).

“I learned how to ride a bike when I was 27. Together with the children, Masha and Arseny, I learned to ride our Lisaped lightweight bike. We currently sell them in Russia and the US (via Amazon), but plan to enter the European market. We have our own production line at a plant in China, and an assembly plant in Russia. We fly to China at least 3-4 times a year to control the quality and to carefully inspect all components,” Olga says.

What else could they wish for? The startup was interesting and successful, the Lisapeds were selling well (growing by 20% a year) … but not everyone is able to enjoy bike tours. Olga first thought about it when she was volunteering at the Dom s Mayakom charity foundation, whose visitors often used wheelchairs. As many bicycles, these wheelchairs were heavy and cumbersome, and their design was uninteresting.

So, a new startup was born: Kinesis company with Olga Barabanova as its general director. According to Olga, at a conservative estimate, there are over 300K people in Russia who need comfortable wheelchairs. It is especially important to provide such wheelchairs to children.

“Kinesis is Russia’s first company that manufactured a wheelchair for children aged 1.5 to 4 years. Usually in Russia such small children have to use passive wheelchairs for adults. This means that parents, medical personnel or tutors can operate the wheelchair, but not the patients themselves. The active wheelchair for children will allow them to rotate the wheels themselves and move around, thus improving fine motor skills and therefore, improve their brain power. Children suffering from cerebral palsy have more chances to learn how to walk if they begin with lightweight active wheelchairs,” Olga says.

For wheelchairs, Kinesis uses the same materials as it does for bicycles: carbon fiber and aluminum. Carbon wheelchairs are lighter, while aluminum ones are cheaper. Each wheelchair is made according to the individual features of the customer, such as height and weight, the length of arms and legs, spinal anatomy, and previous diseases. Naturally, customized wheelchairs are more comfortable than standard ones. However, high production cost is the reverse side of the medal: according to Olga Barabanova, it amounts to 70% of the price, which is high as well (a carbon wheelchair costs about RUR 250K, or $4K) and needs to be reduced. This can be done through state subsidies, production scale-up, and benefits provided for the Skolkovo innovations center residents.

Wheelchairs produced by many international manufacturers are more expensive and, although positioned as customized, are often assembled from prefabricated parts, just as with Lego, Olga says. Each Kinesis wheelchair is a unique product, with all parts made according to the individual features of the customer, and has European CE certification.   

Currently, the startup’s Moscow-based production facility employs ten people, one of them is a wheelchair user. Investments in the Kinesis brand have amounted to RUR 20 mio ($323K) and have yet to pay off. The startup has made a contract with a German rehabilitation center network for selling 50 carbon wheelchair worth about $150K; there are also occasional sales in Russia. The company’s team has ambitious plans for the future and is aware that each wheelchair sold can drastically improve the quality of a person’s life.

According to Olga Barabanova, TV presenter Yevgenia Voskoboynikova, who is unable to walk following a car accident, has switched from a German-made wheelchair that weighs 15 kg to a Kinesis device that weighs only 8 kg.

“Yevgenia is a working mom. Her day starts with taking her kid to the kindergarten; then she goes to work, has some meetings and does shopping. She has to transfer from her wheelchair to a car seat all the time. If a wheelchair is lightweight, aesthetically pleasing, easy to fold and comfortable to use in cold weather, this considerable improves the quality of life,” Olga emphasizes.

Those who have begun using a Kinesis wheelchair is also Ksenia Bezuglova, member of the Commission for the Disabled under the President of the Russian Federation, who switched from an Italian device to a Russian-made one, Olga says.

The amount of joy the new device brings to kids with disabilities is immense, she says.  

“We have recently received an order for building a wheelchair for a boy named Timofey. This is a wonderful story, almost a Christmas one. Timofey is unable to walk as he suffers from cerebral palsy; he was living in an orphanage and used a wheelchair designed for adults. But miracles happen, and recently the boy has been adopted by foster parents, who found a sponsor for ordering our wheelchair. The device will weigh only 8.5 kg and will have rubberized wheel rims to prevent hands from slipping. I hope that by this Christmas, along with other presents, Timofey will also receive a gift of mobility so that he can travel wherever he wants,” Olga Barabanova says.

Kinesis also raises money through crowdfunding, with the first batch of RUR 706K ($11,400) used for purchasing three wheelchairs.

“This is not easy sometimes. At the moment, we are working to receive registration certificates for our wheelchairs, which is an expensive and effort-consuming process. But Kinesis is not simply a business to me but a lifetime project. I know that our wheelchairs can actually change many people’s lives for the better, and this gives me strength,” Olga admits.   

By Natalia Sysoyeva

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