Isabel and Ailbhe Keane on Izzy Wheels’ fast rise

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The Irish sisters behind Izzy Wheels have substance to match their style. They’ve collaborated with Disney and have their sights on Gucci next.

Izzy Wheels began as a college project for Ailbhe Keane, then a graphic design student with a great idea to use her skills to create bright and funky wheel covers for wheelchairs. Keane’s younger sister Isabel, whose use of a wheelchair inspired Ailbhe in the first place, soon joined the business after she finished college.

Fast forward a few years, and the two sister entrepreneurs have earned their place among Europe’s elite innovators. They took to the stage at the European Innovation Council (EIC) Summit recently in characteristically bright outfits to receive the Rising Innovator Award for women entrepreneurs under 30, with a prize worth €50,000.

The win has singled them out as the brightest – literally – young businesswomen around. Their outfits of bold, fun colours stood out among the sea of grey, navy and black suits worn by other attendees at the EIC summit. While Ailbhe and Isabel might not fit the stereotype of serious CEOs, there’s no mistaking the fact that they have substance to match their style.

Other contenders for the EU Rising Innovator award included Livia Ng, founder and CEO of UK deep-tech clinical innovation company Neucruit, and Turkey’s Asude Altintas, co-founder and CEO of Twin Science, a company looking to improve children’s STEAM skills.

Just moments after their win was announced, the Keanes were invited to chat to Irish MEP Mairéad McGuinness. Her interest in the Keanes was evident as she questioned them about everything from their founding story to their opinions on diversity and being visibly different in an often homogenous business world.

Isabel Keane, Mairead McGuinness and Ailbhe Keane sitting in a row with vintage cars in the background at Brussels' autoworld EIC summit venue.

Isabel Keane, Mairead McGuinness and Ailbhe Keane at the EIC Summit. Image: Blathnaid O’Dea/Siliconrepublic.com

On the latter topic, Isabel said: “Growing up, I always had a really positive relationship with my wheelchair and my disability and I wanted to find a way to portray that to other people.”

She added that some people don’t always know how to approach a person with a visible disability. Izzy Wheels’ designs are made to draw attention to wheelchairs and make them an accessory, instead of something to be ignored.

“And the thing is that all of my friends who use these wheelchairs and medical devices all have the same problem where, when they’re meeting someone for the first time who doesn’t know about wheelchairs … they don’t know how to approach the topic. And wheelchairs are so clinical looking.”

By dressing the chairs up, Izzy Wheels customers can “make the chair look nice and open the conversation,” Isabel said. “I do think it’s really powerful.”

Although Ailbhe and Isabel are used to dealing with large companies and projects, their profile will no doubt be boosted significantly in Europe’s business ecosystem by their win at the EIC Summit.

They have already collaborated with Disney, in a deal that allowed them to use character designs on a collection of wheel covers. The research for that particular project was not too much of a chore for sisters as it involved watching a lot of Disney films.

As Ailbhe pointed out, big companies like Disney are catching on to the fact that not every customer is the same and people with disabilities need to be represented too and not just in a tokenistic way. The company was “really, really lovely to work with”, she said, and gave them “complete creative freedom” as well as permissions to use any designs from their extensive archive.

According to Ailbhe, Disney didn’t benefit financially from the collaboration. The company didn’t take royalty fees, and Izzy Wheels made a deal that Disney would donate 10pc of the profits made on the wheelchair covers to a UK charity that makes custom wheelchairs for kids.

Ailbhe, who is four years older than Isabel, has recently started an MBA in Trinity College Dublin funded by a scholarship. With a fully fledged business already under her brightly coloured belt, she doesn’t seem to need any further schooling. But, as she told McGuinness, she never received much business training in secondary school and doing further studies in business after her design course was always part of the plan.

“Every really well-known designer I knew was also really good at business,” she explained. “So, after college, I had this the idea of making Izzy Wheels. I just thought, what better way to learn than making the mistakes.”

In the early days, they got office space, business training and funding from Enterprise Ireland, which, Ailbhe said was “so important” for getting to know other founders.

Siliconrepublic.com asked the Keanes and McGuinness what they all thought of the push by the EIC to make women entrepreneurs more visible. The MEP and EU commissioner for financial services had pointed out earlier in the conversation that she was working in the very male-dominated financial sector, while Ailbhe’s Trinity scholarship is part of an annual award for women entrepreneurs.

The day before the Keanes’ award win, a panel at the EIC Summit discussed the issue of VC funding for women-led businesses. It comes after a report earlier this year found that only 1.7pc of all capital went to women founders in Europe from 2016 to 2020.

According to Isabel, focusing on women’s representation is a “wonderful” starting off point, but this should be broken down to further diversify and represent people who have disabilities and people of different races. “I think that’s where it will be really powerful and represent what society looks like,” she added.

Ailbhe chimed in claiming that the “girlboss” trend was “counterproductive” and “condescending” in her view. McGuinness, who is of a different generation, agreed with this assessment. The MEP also said social media was a “worry”, with the imaging of women and the lack of agency over how they are portrayed being a concern.

So, what’s next for Izzy Wheels? “We really want to grow our team and get Izzy Wheels into new markets and grow our sales – that’s at the heart of the expansion. And I guess another part of that is going to different areas as well and appealing to more people,” Ailbhe said.

“We really want to work on a high fashion piece. Gucci would be our absolute dream collaboration.”

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