Disability no barrier to mobility

IT was a chance encounter born of tragedy that led 22-year-old Darren Lomman into a new business. It came as the then third-year mechanical engineering student at the University of Western Australia was searching for a project required as part of his studies. “I wanted to do something different, but didn’t know what,” he told WA Business News. The inspiration came from a motorbike ride to the Shenton Park Rehabilitation Centre, where Mr Lomman was taking his girlfriend, Lisa Thompson, to visit her paraplegic father, Shane. Mr Thompson owned and ran Collie Motorcycles and Marine, and was a champion motocross rider before a racing accident put him in a wheel chair for the rest of his life. In previous visits, the accident was never discussed. Mr Lomman and Lisa even went to the trouble of stashing their helmets, leather jackets and gloves so as not to stir any old bad memories within the motorbike enthusiast. However, this day, the couple arrived as Mr Thompson was taking a constitutional in the car park and they were sprung. Mr Lomman said what followed was a lecture on the dangers of bike riding and the need for bike safety in general. But it was not long before the whiff of exhaust fumes had Mr Thompson cranking the throttle of Mr Lomman’s bike and talking about how much he missed riding. “He told me if he had one wish, it would be to ride a bike again. There was my project, to fulfill that dream,” Mr Lomman said. After three years, the bike has been built and a new company, Dreamfit, established to provide innovative recreational and leisure equipment for people with disabilities. “I never intended for my university project to become a business, but that’s what’s happened. Now people with disabilities come to us and we develop a solution,” Mr Lomman said. Recognition for his selfless work came earlier this year, when Mr Lomman was named WA’s ‘young person of the year’ for 2006. A year earlier, he won the ‘young biomedical engineer of the year’ award. The business that began in the family garage was registered in 2004 and currently specialises in modifying cars, motorcycles, ski boats, surfboards and even a hovercraft for people with disabilities. The company has been operating from a Bentley unit for just two months and business reality is beginning to dawn. Among the surfboards modified with special chairs, lifters and other developments, the hand-controlled Honda CVR 250RR that can be operated without the use of legs takes pride of place. It has just been licensed and while the man it was made for has yet to take it for a spin, it was recently test ridden by John Mack, who was disabled after an accident around Christmas. The bike has many innovations, the most obvious being what look like a pair of heavy duty trainer wheels that fold up and down just in front of the back wheel to stabilise the machine when stopped. A velocity sensor hooked to a micro processor in the storage space under the seat controls their raising and lowering via compressed air lines. As the bike, accelerates the wheels lift up, giving the rider the full two wheel experience. When the bike brakes and slows to a certain speed, the wheels drop down to support bike and rider. Foot stirrups and simple Velcro strips hold the rider’s legs to the bike. “I wanted the bike to look and handle normally. When the rider is on the bike, you wouldn’t know he/she was disabled,” Mr Lomman said. Cost? About $250,000, including 4,000 man hours, supported by about 40 corporate sponsors, headed by UWA. Mr Lomman’s major problems are those pretty much experienced by all one-person shows with potential to but no cash flow – a lack of money, time and people. He has opted for a strategy of seeking investors and pursuing government grants, such as the federal Comet and Commercial Ready grants. The quest for seed capital is being undertaken personally, but grant applications require a lot of time and a certain, hopefully unpaid, financial expertise. On the grants front, Mr Lomman has already enlisted the assistance of WA’s Small Business Minister and ex fitter and turner, Norm Marlborough. In addition to Mr Lomman, Dreamfit has an unpaid full-time staff member, who pays the rent on the Bentley unit. There are also volunteer engineering students from UWA. Mr Lomman receives a national enterprise incentive scheme (NEIS) allowance of $860 a month, some funding from UWA that is gobbled in parts and machinery, and lives at the family home.

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