Angus Long set up Gosforth-based Embryonyx in 2008 after a 30-year career in health care, as a high end consultancy to SMEs and new business start-ups in the healthcare industry.
In a few short years the business has undergone big changes. Now it no longer does consultancy; turnover was £420,000 last year, up from £50,000 the year before and this year it is targeting £1m. It has already won a Growth Accelerator award.
This is down to its new product Happy Legs. Long recounts what drove him to discover it. “It was during that period of the consultancy that I came across a common theme with all these problems that essentially elderly and disabled people had - one thing they all had in common was they all couldn’t walk very easily, for one reason or another.’’
This inspired him to investigate what effect a lack of walking could have on the human body, apart from an inability to get from A to B. He did some research in partnership with Northumbria University and the results were startling.
He explains: “What I found out was: every time we take a step, every time we use our legs, the calf muscles pump the blood from our feet up our legs, it’s not actually our heart that does that. So the calf muscles act as natural blood pumps, so when we don’t use our legs, the heart has to start working harder to get blood up from the feet and ankle area.
“Now that’s alright for short periods of time, we just get tired, but for people who can’t walk at all, or can’t walk very much at all, what happens is the blood circulation in the lower leg can deteriorate, and that can exacerbate a whole raft of health conditions: swollen ankles, increased neuropathy for diabetics, increased vasculitis, increased deep vein thrombosis.’’
They also discovered that there was no real cure for this except using the legs and there was little available in the way of therapies or exercise equipment. There were cycling machines and rocker boards which could be helpful if people could use them for 30 minutes a day but even this was beyond the capability of people with some conditions.
An electrical stimulator did come onto the market but it had so many restrictions and side effects that 60% of the target market could not use it.
Long says: “Pretty quickly, what I identified was a gap in the market for a product that would help people who couldn’t move their legs easily or exercise their legs and didn’t require electrical shock treatment.’’
The result was Happy Legs, an exercise device with three speed settings that provides gentle and consistent, vibration free, exercise, moving a patients legs while they remain seated in a chair.
Long designed it with help from Northumbria University, and then discovered someone in Spain had, coincidentally patented the same idea. Long got in touch and they struck a deal for the machines to be made in Spain and for Embryonyx to sell them outside Spain.
“I basically test marketed it for 18 months or so starting in 2012 and then I launched it properly in 2013 at the Disability Roadshow in Telford last June, and it has just taken off,’’ he says.
“This started out as a product we saw as something very much for wheelchair users, people who can’t walk at all. We get a lot of people with MS buying this because they literally can’t move their legs at all and they get terrible problems and cold feet as well. That was the initial target market and, of course, the frail, elderly, people who are riddled with age related illnesses so they’re just stuck in their chair all day.’’
However, a whole new market soon became apparent. “Since we launched it we get a lot of people, families and individuals buying them, who are resident in a care home. And what we’ve found is, the care home market, not necessarily the actual residents, but the care home operators, have suddenly found out and they’re absolutely falling over themselves to get their hands on Happy Legs.
“What they’ve realised is that all their residents are spending all day in a room on a chair, not moving, not exercising and of course they know, as care home operators, they need to try to help them physically with movement but they’ve got no other way of doing it. They might have gyms, which look good on a brochure but they’re only used by the staff. In reality, the residents aren’t getting any exercise.
“Research has shown that residents who get physical stimulation, not only benefit physically from the movement of the legs but also fare better mentally. So with the Care Quality Commission now stepping up their expectations of care homes, what they’re finding is that the Happy Legs machines are providing a not just a cost effective, but an effective, physical way of bringing some exercise and stimulation to their residents.
“It’s quite a portable device, it’s not much bigger than a set of bathroom scales, so they can take it into a care room day room and pass it around the residents as they’re sitting there.
“Literally, in the last couple of weeks we’ve actually set up a whole new different strategy for care homes.’’
Embryonyx sells through high street mobility retailers, internet sites and its own website. The machines retail for £290+VAT. Since the launch it has sold some 2,000 units and while it is concentrating sales at the moment on the UK and Republic of Ireland it will look at overseas markets. Long says he has other products in the pipeline, particularly for North America.
Like Happy Legs, these are products to be used while sitting in a chair. “One of them is like an electric blanket for a chair,’’ he says. “You can imagine, elderly people are sitting at home for eight hours a day, they’ve got the whole house’s heating on to keep themselves warm so what this product does is it keeps you warm in your chair. You’re nice and cosy in your chair but you don’t have to have the whole house heated, so it’s a great product for keeping costs down for elderly people at home.’’
Another product is a hand massager for sufferers from arthritis in the hands or Reynaud’s disease, a circulation condition which causes cold, sore hands.
“You basically hold it in the other hand and push your fingers into it and it massages your fingers which almost instant relief to your hands,’’ says Long.
All these products are destined for the export market.
Santander supported the business with the initial capital to fund the sales and marketing activity and buy stock.
Long says: “We just didn’t have the capital to buy the initial stock. One of the initial problems we had when we launched it was that our sales forecast was our best guess but they got blown away so fast that our biggest problem was we just could not supply quick enough to meet the demand. It’s steady now, we’ve managed to build enough stock in the UK to manage any large influx of orders but in the early days we couldn’t do that and we were scrambling around to try to get stock and get it built as fast as possible.’’