Accessing the inaccessible
7 June 2021 at 5:25 pm
Ryan Tilley is the co-founder of Gecko Traxx, a simple accessory that’s helping wheelchair users access the great outdoors. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Ryan Tilley started university thinking he would leave as a furniture designer.
But it was during a university exchange in Singapore that he changed his career trajectory. As part of a course focusing on the issues people with limited mobility, people with disability, and elderly people faced in their everyday lives, he was required to spend three days in a wheelchair.
It was during these three days that he came to understand how inaccessible the world can be for a person living with a disability.
While many urban environments are not built with wheelchair users in mind, accessing natural environments such as the beach can be even harder. As someone who loves the outdoors, this didn’t sit right with Tilley.
Determined to find a solution, he teamed up with Huy Nguyen, who has been a wheelchair user since birth, to start Gecko Traxx, which the company describes as a “hiking boot for wheelchairs”.
The device is a portable and affordable manual wheelchair accessory which fits most wheelchairs and enables access to the beach and other off-road terrains.
Tilley has also launched a new project, the Rove, which is an ultra-lightweight customisable wheelchair, manufactured using 3D printed titanium.
For his efforts, Tilley was named the Australian national winner of the James Dyson Award in 2019, and one of the AMP Foundation Tomorrow Makers for 2020.
In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses the challenges and barriers to social entrepreneurship, finding time to switch off, and not being afraid to try new things.
How did Gecko Traxx come about?
My background was industrial design and mechanical engineering. I actually started doing furniture design, believe it or not. But that changed for me when I did a study tour while I was still at university, which focused on some of the issues faced by people with limited mobility, people with disability, and elderly people. As part of that tour, I spent three days in a wheelchair getting around Singapore. And for me, that was sort of the eye-opening moment of understanding how hard it was to be in a chair. I felt that I could use my skills to actually help people with disabilities be mobile.
And it was from that study tour that I met my co-founder Huy who has been a wheelchair user since birth. Through talking to and getting to know him, I discovered how hard it was for him to get onto the beach and access different areas that I took for granted.
You describe Gecko Traxx as a portable and affordable manual wheelchair accessory, which enables access to the beach and other off-road terrains. What difference has it made to the lives of wheelchair users?
The most rewarding part of my job is getting unsolicited emails back from customers saying, “this is the first time I’ve been on the beach”, or telling me that they haven’t been on the beach for 15 years. Another lady said that Gecko Traxx has allowed her to actually go down to the beach with her kids rather than sitting back on the concrete path and trying to call out to them. So for us, it’s those individual stories that make such a massive difference.
What have some of the challenges and barriers been to starting Gecko Traxx?
I think one of the biggest barriers has been funding, especially being a hardware product or a physical product. We had to invest in very expensive tooling just to be able to produce the product. And so we’ve been quite lucky with the help of accelerator programs and social impact grants.
The other challenge is manufacturing. We have had a lot of challenges with manufacturing the product. Our first manufacturer actually went broke on us, and we had to scramble to find products for customers we had promised products to. We spent months just managing that. For us, we always wanted to be Australian made, which we are, but that was certainly a challenge.
Have you found it hard as a social entrepreneur to maintain a work life balance and to take breaks from your work?
Definitely. And you can probably ask my wife that! She’s the one that helps keep that balance for me. It’s something I find hard to switch off from. There’s so many things as an entrepreneur you have to juggle. You have to do the finances, you have to do the sales and marketing, which all takes a lot of time. But I try to keep a good work life balance because otherwise it’s very easy to burn out, and if you’re burnt out, the product or the impact you’re trying to have just won’t happen.
And what advice do you have for someone trying to make a change in the world?
Just go for it. When we first started, I had no idea what I was doing. It was just sort of taking a leap of faith and giving it go. Surround yourself with people that are smarter than you, mentors, people that are one or two years ahead of where you are, and they can really, really help guide you.
What do you like to do when you’re not at Gecko Traxx?
Spend my time outdoors as much as possible. So that includes a lot of mountain bike riding, camping and getting away for the weekend.