Big idea led to launch of new venture

Dane McGee at Engineered Assistance, Thorp Arch.
Dane McGee at Engineered Assistance, Thorp Arch.
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A Yorkshire engineer has invented a health aid that’s changing the lives of patients with severe mobility problems. Sheena Hastings reports.

A moment of curiosity about how one mother coped with the needs of her quadriplegic adult son led Dane McGee to look again at an engineering concept he’d been working with for decades. He would then spend years developing an entirely new use for it.

He hopes that his invention will improve the lives of those whose mobility is severely limited and their carers.

Making a concept seeded over coffee and cake at Fountains Abbey take root and grow into a viable commercial proposition with life-changing potential has also changed Dane McGee’s career.

“I’d been an apprentice in the family firm, making conveyors for different kinds of industrial use for many years,” says Dane, who’s now in his 40s and lives near Leeds.

“But the business went down due to the last recession, there were few jobs in engineering and for a long while I learned other aspects of business through jobs in IT and marketing.”

One day a few years ago Dane and his wife Liz were sitting in the café at Fountains Abbey when he looked across the room at a woman who was helping her son of perhaps 30 years old to drink a cup of tea.

“They seemed to be having a great time together. From the way she was having to help him and his high-dependency wheelchair, it was clear that he was paralysed from the neck down.

“Seeing them set me wondering about how she managed to handle him with his various needs at home. I assumed she probably had loads of specialist equipment to help.”

His curiosity aroused, Dane went home and started to research just what kind of aids were available to help with the care of someone with severely restricted mobility.

“The answer was that there 
was very little, and this really shocked me.

“For many decades the main aid for getting a person in and out of bed into a chair or the bath has been the hoist and sling.”

During his research he came across the website of the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

“I thought about my own family and what if someone I loved had that condition,” says Dane.

“I found some fantastic products designed to help patients in different situations, but nothing that could move a patient back and forth without manual handling and potential risk to the carer or possibly extra discomfort for patients already in a lot of pain.”

Dane told Liz that he was going to use conveyor technology to build a bed and chair combination that could be operated at the touch of a button. “She said: ‘Surely, if it’s such a good idea someone must have already done it.’ I set up a company and approached a patent lawyer to find out if what I was thinking of already existed somewhere in the world.

“He found that 50 years ago in the US someone did come up with a patent for equipment that covered the same principles – 
but no-one’s sure what became of his idea.”

To give up the day job in marketing and return to engineering with the building of this new mobility equipment Dane needed cash, and his property developer brother-in-law Richard Morton believed so strongly in the project that he bankrolled it with a six-figure sum. Dane set to work on how he could use a conveyor system to build a bed whose surface would roll sideways, moving the person onto a wheelchair (docked to the bed) which has unfolded into a flat position and also has a conveyor surface.

At the touch of a button the patient would be gently moved across from the bed onto the flattened-out chair. The wheelchair then detaches from the bed and slowly moves into a sitting position.

The giant care home chain Barchester has just purchased the first Mobility With Dignity MD350 to be installed anywhere in the UK in their home at Hopton-on-Sea in Norfolk. It was designed and manufactured at McGee’s industrial unit near Wetherby, and is a bariatric version – that is, it can easily move a person who may weigh up to 55 stone.

With the world’s growing obesity issues, increasing numbers of people with health problems experience added difficulties in recovering from illness because of restricted mobility, says Dane.

“Size can get in the way of someone getting back on their feet.”

Being able to move a patient with no handling means fewer carers would be needed to help, so costs can be reduced as would the risk to carers.

Now launching the MD350 more widely – with various add-ons to help with activities such as dressing the immobile patient – Dane says that, even with his engineering and marketing experience, the process has been one long, steep learning curve because he previously knew nothing about the healthcare sector.

Many positive noises were made and expert advice offered for free, but further along the six-year curve came the realisation that a lot more funding was needed to bring the hundreds of components in the Mobility with Dignity equipment up to regulatory requirements and commercialise it properly.

“The same six-figure sum and more was needed, so we looked around for investors and found a fantastic group of people including some friends and family, who also had all sorts of expertise that was useful and liked the nature of the product.

Last year Bradford Council’s senior manual handling co-ordinator and head of the community equipment service agreed to evaluate the kit in comparison with hoist and sling.

The prototype was tested in a council-run residential home, to move a patient with a severe degenerative neurological condition and very complex needs, for whom hoisting was painful. She was able to happily and comfortably spend up to 11 hours in the chair and was pleased with the method of transfer. Collingham Over 50s club later agreed to test the equipment, too.

The assessors’ conclusion was that the kit was “revolutionary”.

“The thing that most excites me about what we’ve done is the possibilities it offers patients for independence,” says Dane. “(And) I hate to think of anyone not being able to access care and rehabilitation because of problems with how to move them out of bed, including size.

“Now the real marketing begins. We’ll be talking to councils and others, in Yorkshire and beyond, and there’s already great interest.

“I know we wouldn’t have got this far without the help and support of some extraordinary people. They believed in it, giving time, expertise and money – and I’m so grateful.”