Rob Smith of Active Hands Ltd

Rob Smith of Active Hands Ltd

A firm grip on success

Wheelchair athlete Rob Smith has turned the gripping aids he developed to help him fightback from his injuries into a scalable business. Bryce Wilcock reports

Rob Smith, who lives in Leamington Spa, began to develop gripping aids following a fall in 1996 in which he suffered devastating spinal injuries.

He was just 20-years-old at the time studying mechanical engineering at Warwick University. After spending nine months in a Salisbury spinal rehabilitation unit, he was able to return to university as a disabled student to complete his degree course.

“My hand function was severely affected by the spinal cord damage, so holding any items was almost impossible,” he said.

“I couldn’t find any products on the market that allowed me to grasp items in the gym and other areas of life, so I invented my own gripping aids with the help of my mother Marion and her sewing machine.”

With the help of his gripping aid he began to play wheelchair rugby, winning UK and European club honours as well as being selected for the GB development squad, and then decided to try wheelchair racing.

Now a T52 wheelchair racer, he has won the Dubai marathon four times and has represented team GB in the European championships, winning a silver medal in 2014 in the 1500m.

He has also represented Team GB at the IPC marathon road race for the World Cup and world championship events and holds the T52 British record for every distance on the track and on the road from 100m up to marathon.  

Working alongside his mother Marion, his sister Mel and dad Trevor, Rob has since turned the idea into a sustainable business following encouragement from fellow wheelchair athletes.

Rob said: “The products were initially designed for my personal use but some of the people that I played wheelchair rugby with saw me using them in the gym and showed an interest in obtaining a pair.

“At this point we realised that we had the potential to help more people with hand function disabilities and we decided to set up the Active Hands Company. Our General Purpose gripping aid was our first product.

“It is the most versatile of our products and can be used for gripping objects in the gym; outdoors, such as for kayaking or biking; in the house (for cleaning and doing DIY); in the garden and kitchen; and for activities such as snooker or holding Nintendo Wii controllers. New uses for our gripping aids are being discovered all the time.

“As time went on we developed new products and gained knowledge of other disability groups who could also benefit from our gripping products. In 2008 Active Hands became a Limited Company and we now sell direct to end users all over the world via our website and through resellers in other countries all around the world.”

Today, Active Hands exports its gripping aids across the globe, with around 70% of its turnover coming from overseas customers. As part of its current growth plans the firm believes exporting is key to achieving its goals of a wider global market.

Rob said: “I would say probably around 70% of our business is export driven. North America is our key market and Europe and Scandinavia are also big markets for us – they have good disposable income and are very positive on disability.

“We are also trying to push markets which we are struggling to reach a bit such as Japan, which I think would be a really good market but it throws up challenges in terms of language, distance and buying habits.

“The Department for International Trade have been a huge help in terms of breaking into new markets. We’ve attended a number of overseas shows courtesy of their support which has allowed us to really broaden our horizons.”

And looking forward, Rob is determined to keep the company growing. He added: “We have grown by around 25-50% year-on-year since our launch. We’re still growing at that same rate now.

“We have no full-time members of staff, everyone works part-time as they all have either a disability or have caring responsibilities at home. We have about 12 staff now. Some of them are in manufacturing working from home, some are in admin.

“We turned over just over £200,000 last year and are hoping to hit the quarter of a million mark this year. Our mission as a company is to become the go to company in the entire world for hand function products.

“We’re continuing to develop our own lines and have a number of new porotype’s which will hopefully be hitting the market this year. We’re also looking to stock more companies’ products and grow our sales and revenue accordingly.”

Asked what advice he would give to an aspiring entrepreneur looking to emulate his success, he concluded: “Just get on with it. You can plan loads of stuff but sometimes you just need to make a few mistakes and learn from them. Learning as you go is the best way!”