ICON Wheelchairs are manufactured in Denmark, by Langhøj Live ApS, who is a sister company to Langhøj ApS, adapting vehicles for disabled people.
Langhøj ApS was established in 1969 and Langhøj Live ApS was born in 2012 with the aim of providing high quality mobility products to Danish wheelchair users.
At the same time, we bought the UK based company manufacturing the NuDrive wheelchair propulsion levers, which were our first export products.
In 2015 we bought the production of the Canada based ICON Wheelchair company and the right to distribute the wheelchairs in the World, except for North- and South America, which the Canadian based company are still in charge of.
The story behind the unique ICON A1 wheelchair is a chapter of its own, which you can read much more about below, if you have the time and desire to do so. It is an interesting story!
Growing an ICON
A snowboard accident, 13 Paralympic medals, and an interrupted cooperation with the bicycle manufacturer Cervélo, cleared the path for a completely new way to design active wheelchairs. Christian Bagg and Jeff Adams, who are both active wheelchair users, were by no means satisfied with the wheelchairs available to them in the market and decided to design a wheelchair that was not only perfect for themselves, but also perfect for most other people using active wheelchairs.
This is the story about a wheelchair based on a desire to combine the technology from the bicycle world with the technological developments seen in elite sports, and let it meld together in a standard everyday wheelchair.
The Wild Boys
The story takes off all the way back in the mid-1990s where Jeff is in the middle of a successful career as Canadas Paralympic champion within wheelchair racing. One gold medal, three silver- and three bronze medals has so far been swept around his neck from the Paralympic games in Barcelona, Seoul and Atlanta. He is by many Canadians considered as one of the most prominent sports personalities in Canada. Jeff has been a wheelchair user since he was treated for cancer as a child. He survived the cancer, but the chemo “burned” his spine at the age of just 9 years old.
Christian Bagg, who in 1996 is 20 years old, is fully committed in his university studies to become an engineer, and looking to build a career as product developer within the mountain bike industry, when the accident occurs.
“Actually it didn’t come as a total surprise to anybody, including myself”, Christian says when asked how the accident occurred.
As the hospital, at which he is committed after a snowboard stunt that went terribly wrong, contacts his girlfriend she instantly knows what has happened. “Is it Christian?” she asks.
”Yes” is the short reply in the telephone.
“He broke his back, didn’t he?”
”Yes. He will not be able to walk again”.
Christian grew up in the rough wilderness of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in Alberta and he continues to takes full advantage of the opportunities given to him, growing up in such a place. The summers are often spent competing in intensive and breathless mountain bike races in dangerous and challenging terrains, which literally brings the riders to the edge of steep cliffs and rock faces as they at high speeds maneuver their bikes into sharp turns and over obstacles that effectively obstruct the riders’ battles towards the finishing line. Christian is often to be found at the front of the pack and on the medal podium.
During the winters, when deep snow covers the mountains and trails with a soft white blanket, the mountain bike is replaced with a snowboard. But the intensity and the neck-breaking adventures remains. Christian is not afraid of anything and
does not hold back. But in the winter 1996 his luck runs out. During a big air competition, he is going for a big tail grab, but it turns into a back flip instead. Christian falls to his back and is helicoptered into the emergency hospital in Calgary. Now as a T-12 paraplegic and with a life full of broken dreams…at least that is what you would expect!
But Christian has an indomitable way of dealing with life and after just three months in rehab, he is released with the help from family and friends, as well as several meetings with a number of disabled athletics who convince him that life is not over. It just took an unexpected turn.
Jeff Adams is one of those athletes who visits the rehab center while Christian is hospitalized and the two quickly hit it off. When Christian later on returns to his engineering studies it is Jeff he contacts, when he needs guidance for his new project.
Three years in a “custom-fit” wheelchair that never really fit, convinces him to modify his dreams of designing mountain bikes and commit all his passion for product development into designing wheelchairs instead. The lack of adjustability is a constant nag as his body aches to change seating position, but the wheelchair doesn’t allow for it.
Jeff turns out to be exactly the right person to call. With a profound insight into the technology used in wheelchair racing he has lots to contribute in relations to Christians project. “I always wondered why the technology put into sportschairs was not transferred to the everyday wheelchairs as well”, Jeff explains.
The call from Christian turns out to be the beginning of a long, and sometimes turbulent, business relationship and personal friendship between the two. As with most partnerships, theirs turns out to have many ups and downs personally as well as professionally.
They are the perfect match. Christian is one of the few people that is actually capable of turning even the craziest ideas on paper into fully functional prototypes.
Jeff, on the other hand, is the kind of guy who has a strong desire to act as an advocate for accessibility and as a public figure has huge success attracting attention to his own person. In 2002, in an attempt to raise awareness to the developments of barrier free environments, he raises $ 250.000 by climbing the 1.776 steps of the Canadian CN Tower, sitting in a wheelchair.
But they are also just a couple of big boys and during a meeting in a bar in Las Vegas, with some potential investors, they become drunk, starts a physical fist fight with each other and is kicked out of the bar, with the instructions never to come back.
In cooperation with Cervélo
In 2006 Jeff and Christian decides to incorporate all the knowledge and experience gained from Jeffs long and successful career, into the development of the ultimate wheelchair. A wheelchair that is still lightweight and comfortable to ride. Where the wheelchair is adapted to the user instead of the user to the wheelchair. A wheelchair that doesn’t do the user more disabled with time, but which is capable of changing adjustments according to the changes that occurs in the users’ body over time.
“Imagine having a suit tailor-made just for you”, Jeff says. “It has a perfect cut as you receive it, but it will be the only set of clothes you will wear for the next 5-6 years. In other words, your body cannot change. You cannot gain weight. You cannot crouch your shoulders. You cannot work out to have larger muscles. Because if you do, the suit will not fit anymore. That’s how it is to receive a custom-fit wheelchair. It might fit perfectly now, but it is a short sighted experience going through any of the countless changes we all go through in our lives.”
The two of them initiates a cooperation with the Canadian bicycle manufacturer Cervélo in 2007, who invests in the mutual project to develop a multi adjustable wheelchair. Those who follow bicycle sports probably know Cervélo as the bicycle brand that sponsored the team CSC, owned by Bjarne Riis, when Carlos Sastre wins the Tour de France in 2008. In other words, it is a bicycle manufacturer who is right at the forefront of the technological developments.
On paper the assignment is straightforward: Develop a wheelchair that fits both Jeff and his 155 cm height as well as Christian and his 193 cm height. In praxis it is not as easy as it sounds though.
The cooperation ends already in 2010 as Cervélo decides to go solo. Christian and Jeff is kicked out in what most of all resembles a hostile take-over during some organization changes. Today it is still a mystery to them what happened and why Cervélo decided to terminate the relationship. “But no matter the reason, Christian says, “we were so proud of what we had accomplished in terms of our ideas and concepts, that we decide to re-start in another company.”
Icon Wheelchairs Inc. sets off literally few weeks later, but in order to not run into any infringements of legal rights and patents, they revert to a concept developed prior to the engagement with Cervélo.
The new chair is unveiled to the public for the first time, as a prototype, on the CBC TV-show Dragons’ Den already few months after the break-up with Cervélo. Christian and Jeff pitches the ‘Dragons’ a 20% stake in the company for $ 500.000, but although the celebrity investors on the TV show highly appreciate the presented concept and understood the huge benefits the wheelchair will provide to wheelchair users worldwide, the investment is just too high for any of them to commit.
”Going on the show was probably the best thing we ever did”, Jeff concludes afterwards. “Although we did not have the capital injection we were hoping for the show gave us so much attention that Multimatic themselves contacted us afterwards to offer their assistance in the design phases.”
Multimatic, who is a world leading and recognized supplier of quality components to the automotive industry, offers their full support to ensure that the prototype turns into a fully functional and ready-to-sell wheelchair. They do not intend to invest in Icon Wheelchairs Inc. but allow Christian and Jeff full access to the company designers, engineers, machine park and testing facilities. “Anything that had ever caused us headaches was now solved professionally to levels exceeding anything we could ever have dreamt of”, Christian says. “Multimatic has been involved in a large part of the final design.”
The final wheelchair
As the Icon wheelchair is finally introduced to the Canadian and American markets in 2011, the hype around the chair is already massive. “It seems that we are not the only wheelchair users around who is frustrated with the lack of adjustability options”, Christian says with a big smile and continues: “Basically, what occupational therapists are faced with every day is that they can only prescribe what the wheelchair user needs at that exact moment. But who says those needs are the same just two years from now or even two weeks from now?”.
The two of them has successfully designed a multi adjustable wheelchair, which even has a standard built-in air suspension that effectively absorbs those whole body vibrations a wheelchair user is exposed to all day long, and which is known to cause secondary injuries such as lower back pains. But as opposed to many other attempts to do the same, you are positively surprised that the Icon suspension does not haul energy out of the forward propulsion as is the case with many other suspension wheelchairs.
When looking closely to the Icon wheelchair you will realize you are looking at a wheelchair that basically looks different. But you will soon acknowledge that it is also a wheelchair that can be adjusted in so many different settings that you would not have thought possible, and still remain low weight and provide excellent driving skills.
”We have been looking a lot into the bicycle industry. Several of the components are taken directly from mountain bikes”, Christian explains and point to the suspension. “That one, for instance, is a Rock Shox produced by SRAM and is used by leading mountain bike riders worldwide and in some of the roughest landscapes you can ever imagine. If it can withstand that kind of use, why shouldn’t it also be able to withstand everyday use in a wheelchair?” he asks rhetorically.
”But we haven’t only been looking into adjustability, comfort and driving skills”, Jeff adds and refers to the slightly odd looking front wing. “In transfer situations from floor-to-chair, chair-to-floor or even chair-to-bed, the wrist, elbow and shoulder joint are normally exposed to high stress loads as the joint is left completely open during transfers. This is due to the fact that you will normally grab the wheelchair frame at seating level. In the Icon chair you will grab at a much lower point, on the upholstered front wing. In that way the shoulder joint keeps more closed during the transfer and is exposed to much less stress.”
The international market
Three years after a successful market introduction in North America, Jeff and Christian is ready to look into the international scene. Especially Europe looks interesting. However, they quickly realize that it is not simple dealing with the fragmented European market, unless you are physically present. Therefore, Jeff packs his backpack and heads off to the Rehacare exhibition in Germany to try and find the right business partner for them. Here he meets Sales Manager Martin Fog Thomsen from the Danish company Langhøj Live ApS. “Quite frankly, we were not looking for wheelchairs”, Martin exclaims, “but this wheelchair was so different in so many ways that it automatically appealed to my curiosity.”
Back in the office Martin finds that the wheelchair from the exhibition constantly interrupts his thoughts. He decides to share the experience with his boss, Frank Langhøj, who immediately shares his interest for the product and reaches out to Jeff, who is already back home in familiar surroundings in Canada.
Negotiations are initiated and shortly after, Jeff and Frank agrees that the best solution will be if Frank buys 50% of the company. “It was never really in our cards to become a wheelchair manufacturer”, Frank explains. “The company Langhøj has been adapting vehicles for
disabled people for more than thirty years, and even though we by hiring Martin has taken a step in the direction to sell mobility devices as add-ons to wheelchairs nationally, buying Icon Wheelchairs Inc. is an unexpected, but very exciting development for the company.”
With the new Export Manager Torben Mathiassen as front figure, Langhøj Live ApS sets off to present the Icon wheelchair for the European market, at the Rehacare exhibition exactly one year after Jeff and Martin met for the first time. “Our primary target is to find interesting dealers in various parts of Europe”, Torben explains, “but we are clearly also very excited to listen to the end-user’s evaluations as well”.
The reception of the ICON is a great success. Several potential dealers visit the stand with a request to become national dealer in their own home countries. “But it is not until Kirsten Hart drops by that we fully understand what we actually have gotten into our hands”, Torben says.
Kirsten Hart is the leading Clinical Specialist Physiotherapist at the National Spinal Injury Center at Stoke Mandeville hospital near London and she quickly gains interest in the Icon wheelchair. “We have previously made the British healthcare providers aware of the situation that newly injured change body-posture drastically within the first couple of years after they enter into their first wheelchair”, Kirsten explains and continues: “but up until now there has been no real solution to the problem. This wheelchair may very well be what we, at the spinal cord injury centers, has been asking for, on behalf of our patients.”