Even as a child, Mike Brown, 41, held the spirit of adventure within him. Growing up in Wellington, his parents fostered his love of surfing, skiing and mountaineering. His boundless energy was nurtured. He was always on a hunt to try new and challenging pursuits that would help him grow. But Mike learnt early on that things do not always go to plan. When a friend fell badly during a climbing trip in Patagonia, resulting in him fracturing his back and breaking ribs, Mike started to see that life is precious. Little did he know that a similar fate was to behold him several years later.
‘I was working in Australia at the time. I’d been offered this well-paying job supervising maintenance engineers in a bauxite refinery. It was a super dangerous site, and I was stressed to the max,’ states Mike. This work setting was the polar opposite of where his adventures had led him. He had just returned from three years living onboard a 40-foot sailboat, and sailing her from Mexico to New Zealand, with his wife Kirstin and son Ocean (nine months old at the time). Fresh air, diving, fishing and sailing were a direct contrast to what he was now facing at the mine.
‘Exercise was my “go-to” when things were tough at work. Someone suggested I buy a skateboard and hey, why not, I thought. I can recharge like I do on a surfboard. But it turns out it’s the worst thing I could have done.’
It was a quiet morning, in a small, rural Queensland town. ‘I could hear the birds and insects. I could feel the stillness,’reflects Mike. ‘I was skating along the quiet streets; there were no cars around. But on the last corner, I collided with an oncoming car. That was the start of my paraplegic career.’
What Mike didn’t know at the time was that he had broken his thoracic spine and severed his spinal cord. He couldn’t move his legs. What he did know came with total clarity whilst lying on the side of the road. ‘You could call it a severe case of optimism,’ jokes Mike. ‘I knew there and then that I had made the most of my physical body up to that point, and now it was time to use my brain.’
And so he did. After a month of rehabilitation in the Brisbane spinal unit he returned to Christchurch with a view to using his mind to create an outstanding life for him and his family.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Reality sunk in and he found his identity in crisis. The thought of never being able to ski, surf, or mountain bike again was a tough ordeal to come to terms with. The turning point came when Mike watched a short documentary on Josh Dueck, a Paralympic skier, who was the first Paralympian to perform a backflip on a sit ski.
‘Seeing Josh gave me hope. I saw that there was a whole other world out there and it was time for me to embrace it,’ smiles Mike.
Mike set about researching and investigating the adaptive technology sector: designers and manufacturers of equipment to support paraplegics to live an independent life. With his engineering mentality and unstoppable quest to find solutions, Mike found ways to make his own life as free as possible. He purchased an adaptive surfboard from California, an off-road hand-powered tricycle, a car with hand controls, a specialist roof rack to load his wave-ski independently, Kevlar clothing to allow him to shuffle from beach to sea. It was all these innovations that opened the world of adaptive technologies to him. And that was when he started seeing gaps in the market and avenues for new products.
‘I was renovating my house some time after the accident and I had some tools on my lap to do some wiring jobs, but I was struggling to hold onto them whilst also holding and using my wheelchair. On another occasion I was in Christchurch before a meeting, having bought some sushi for my lunch. I hit a bump in the road and the sushi on my lap went flying.’
And so the LapStacker was born: two simple straps that attach and retract into either side of the wheelchair and pull out and connect to hold items stored on the lap. All nicely held in place during transit. Mike joined forces with industrial designer Tim Cox, also based in Christchurch, and came up with a prototype in January 2018. Their ‘homemade’ test was to load Mike up with a 10 kg box of paper on his lap, attach the LapStacker and see if Mike could make it fall off through moving his wheelchair around. When the paper wouldn’t budge this was instant validation that the LapStacker could be a winner.
‘It’s now so obvious an idea to me, I can’t believe someone didn’t invent it sooner,’ exclaims Mike. And sure enough, the public agreed. The product raised US$28,000 on a Kickstarter funding platform and had 250 backers in 30 days. The product is now for sale online and ships throughout the world. Mike has set up adaptdefy, a company that stands not only for creating great products but also connecting like-minded communities of wheelchair users who want to get the most out of life.
There’s no resting on his laurels for Mike though. With his spinal injury comes other inconveniences he is keen to solve. Such as the fact that he and other spinal injury victims can’t feel their bladder and hence don’t know when they are full. This can have embarrassing consequences and also environmental consequences, as the catheters some people use are non-recyclable and plastic-based. So alongside medical and technical experts, Mike has joined forces to develop the Uri-Go, a wearable sensor that attaches to the stomach to help users know when they are full. Not only is this suitable for people with spinal injuries, but also for those suffering from diabetes, Parkinson’s, MS or indeed children wetting the bed. Mike and his team worked hard to win the Callaghan Innovation C-Prize award in 2017 and also won a place on the Vodafone Xone Incubator programme to help them develop and commercialise this life-changing invention.
Over and above all of these accolades comes Mike’s need to serve his community, to give back and to provide a voice for other wheelchair users and those that have ‘adapt-defied’. ‘The more common this becomes, the less special someone in a wheelchair doing something active will become. I want these people to live with as little limitation as possible,’ states Mike. His blog (at adaptdefy.com) is testament to this need to spread the word that amazing things can still happen, even when it appears that life has changed forever.
Most of all Mike wants to give others hope. To help others see that these accidents and injuries, however horrific, can be viewed as a great opportunity. Mike is clear that if he can in some small way provide that hope and help others weather the storm, then it’s all been worth it.
WORDS Kathy Catton