Born with Athetoid cerebral palsy, Glasgow-based Alex Papanikolaou always had an entrepreneurial spirit. At 10 he was fixing people’s computers for a tenner, and 18 years later he was announced Entrepreneur of the Year by easyJet founder Stelios. We talk to the man behind the £30,000 prize
“I LOVE THAT EVERY day is different. I can be in the office or I could be travelling to Europe to meet suppliers. I love that I’m always doing something different.” Being able to stay on the move has always been a key motivator for Glasgow businessmen Alex Papanikolaou. The 28-year-old founder of Freedom One Life – a business that develops power wheelchairs that offer users greater freedom, support and reliability – was recently awarded the prestigious Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs, run in partnership with Leonard Cheshire Disability. Alex first came up with the idea for his business three years ago when he returned to the UK after spending five years travelling and working across 40 different countries.
“The idea came from my own problems with my power wheelchair” explains Alex. “I have used a powerchair since school, and pretty much wherever I went, the chair was getting in the way of me doing what I wanted rather than supporting me. This chair ran my life – there was always something wrong with it. I was always either charging it or fixing it. Every wheelchair problem you can imagine, I’ve had it a million times.”
Turns out Alex wasn’t alone. Hundreds of other power chair users were frustrated by the lack of reliability, flexibility and endurance with the current products on the market. Alex had an idea to change all that. His designs are slicker and lighter, using modern materials and cutting edge engineering. For example, unlike competitors’ products that need charged up to twice a day, The Freedom One chair can be charged once a week. “I charge mine every Sunday and I forget about it all week. I can go to work, I can go to London, I can go anywhere and it will work.”
Alex adds: “The way we see it, half of our company is the chair, and the other half is the service we give to people. It’s all about having the right product and the right service to back it up. Our goal is to keep people moving.”
After three years of hard work and four prototypes, Alex was delighted to win the Stelios award in December, set up by easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou to recognise the country’s most talented disabled entrepreneurs. And the £30,000 prize money is a nice perk too.
“We’ve come such a long way,” says Alex. “People often say, how did you do this, how did you start when you didn’t have any funding or connections? I always tell them it’s about small steps. I think it’s important to focus on the value you can add, and building a team around you that share your vision. If you add value, the support will come. It might take time, but it will come.”
For Alex, the next step is to launch the chair in the UK, grow his team and focus on the future ahead. “I still love to travel and there are so many places I’d love to go. But,” he smiles, “it’s all business now.”
Find out more about the Freedom One Chair at www.freedomonelife.com