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A disabled entrepreneur making tracks in the world of mobility

An Interview with Alex Papanikolau - founder of Freedom One Life

 Alex Papanikolau has had cerebral palsy from birth and used power chairs since he was a child.  Since then he has had a full time working and social life, and has taken his chair to over 30 countries, dealing with hundreds of transport methods, terrains and climates.  After spending several years working internationally, advising companies on their approach to employing disabled individuals, Alex returned to Scotland to begin a business that can offer freedom to many more people like him.  His experiences are the key inspiration to the wheelchair and also Alex’s consultancy.  He also speaks at events and holds private life coaching sessions.

Alex has been working on his business for the past two years. At first he found it quite hard to find the right business support networks and in particular found a lack of support for disabled entrepreneurs. However, after the first year he started to get into Scottish Enterprise and Prince’s Trust, who have given him a lot of support both financially and in terms of advice and mentoring. Most recently he was amongst the first winners of the Young Scottish EDGE – see Scottish EDGE case study.

 

Here we ask him about his journey:

 

1.        What inspired you to set-up Freedom One Life?

I have always wanted my own business, even as a child I was very entrepreneurial and was fixing computers for money. It was then through my experience of travelling and living with a disability that inspired me to start this business and address a gap in the market

 

2.         What was the idea of designing cutting edge power wheelchair?

The project was born out of the challenges I have faced throughout my personal and professional life, having had cerebral palsy since birth and used power wheelchairs since I was a child at school. Since then I have travelled extensively and worked as a consultant in a number of different countries to support employers in bringing more disabled employees to the workplace. This gave me first hand experience of the barriers to freedom and equality that are created by both people’s attitudes to disability and the limitations that are imposed upon us by power wheelchairs which are outdated, prohibitively expensive and not fit for purpose. I have taken my chair to over 35 countries, dealing with hundreds of transport methods, terrains and climates, from Arabian deserts to North American mountains and was continually let down by my wheelchair by having every problem and breakdown imaginable, from dozens of flat tyres, dead batteries, broken motors and even cracked frames, to having to wait 6 weeks in foreign countries for parts. It was my desire to provide a better product and customer service experience to power wheelchair users that has spurred me on. I believe a new powerchair, built for an active lifestyle can give people new independence and freedom at home, work and abroad.

 3.      What attracted you to become an entrepreneur?

As described above, I have always loved working for myself and tried many ventures over the years including computer repairs and photography before settling on this business that drives a core need for equality.

 

4.         What barriers have you encountered since becoming an entrepreneur as a person with a disability?

My biggest challenge has been my voice because it can take a little getting used to, so I find it difficult to have complex discussions over the phone and have had to find alternatives. Also, when I am asked to present a very short pitch, I ask for extra time.

 

5.         What successes have you had since becoming a disabled entrepreneur?

I have successfully raised significant funding both from public and private sources, I have won awards for the wheelchair, completed the first prototype and also developed strategic partnerships.

 

6.         What support and resources have you had along the way to help set-up your business?

We have raised funding and support from private investors and advisors as well as from Business Gateway, Prince’s Trust, Scottish Enterprise and Unltd. I have not received any support specifically related to my disability.

 

7.         What do you think the ecosystem can do to encourage more people with disabilities to take up entrepreneurship?

I would like to see support specifically related to having a disability to help them have equal opportunities, for example help with phone calls or a rent subsidy to secure accessible office space that tends to be more expensive.

“It was my desire to provide a better product and customer service experience to power wheelchair users that has spurred me on.”

- Alex Papanikolaou

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