Overnight, Phil Thorn ended up blind, deaf and paralysed from the waist down. The bike his brother Clem built so he could rehab from his bed has become an export sensation.
Phil Thorn was 39 years old when his life changed forever. He was perfectly fine – fit and well, says his older brother Clem. “He used to hike and mountain bike and do all the things that you do with your kids.” But on a spring day in 2008, the father of two told his wife Julia he wasn’t feeling well and needed a lie down.
It didn’t seem like cause for alarm at first. But later that night, Julia checked on her husband only to find he was terribly ill and unresponsive. Phil had slipped into a coma.
He was airlifted from Queenstown to a hospital in Dunedin, where doctors struggled to pinpoint the cause of the sudden illness. Eventually he was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.
According to a specialist, it’s near impossible to say for certain how it occurred, but pollen may have set off a sinus infection that activated a bug that spread throughout Phil’s brain, causing an inflammation which resulted in his body shutting down.
The family was in complete shock when they heard the news. “We got a call that morning to come and be there just in case he was going to die,” Clem says. “I came out of there knowing that it was pretty serious. It was touch and go that evening.”
Phil survived but remained in a coma for about eight weeks. When he woke, he started to respond slowly, then lost all the feeling in the left side of his body. The meningitis had left him blind, deaf and with minimal feeling in his body from the waist down.
As he got healthier and stronger, Phil’s family and the specialists began working out how they could prepare him for life again.
“We used to talk to him through these little sponge letters because he was literally having to learn how to communicate with us,” Clem says. “We would give him an A and a B, and he’d feel them and know what the words were. It was a very slow, protracted way of talking.”
One weekend, after Phil had begun rehabilitation, he told Clem how tough it was only getting to spend an hour out of bed every day. “This is where the whole thing really started,” Clem says. “He said to me, ‘The top half of my body is fine. Can we come up with some plan here where we can have an exercise machine that will help me move the lower part of my body?’”
Clem’s wife Annette says they were astounded when they discovered the hospital had no equipment Phil could use to move his legs without the help of a physio.
“At a very early point we found out there wasn’t anything around that you could put on a bed, where people who are in this particular state could use,” says Clem. “I didn’t really sort of think about it seriously until I got home, but I was starting to think how I could possibly make something that sat on his bed that he could actually use himself without anybody’s help. I talked to a mate of mine who was an engineer in the Hutt, then I remember sitting out on our deck at home and I pretty much drew the basic idea on the back of a piece of paper.”
Evolution by design
Within a month of sketching the initial design in 2009, Clem, who has worked in construction for more than 30 years, had built the first version of the YouBike (known then as the PhilBike) with the help of his friend Martin Ingliss.
The PhilBike Mk I, a bed-mounted exercise bike with which the user can exercise the lower part of their body through rotating handgrips with their arms, was born. There was a central column with chain and cogs installed on the inside to connect the hand and feet pedals, and although it was designed to Phil’s specifics it could be adjusted to fit posture. It was then taken down to Dunedin so its inspiration could give the prototype its first trial.
“You can spend 10 minutes on it, or all day, and you’re not subject to anyone else,” says Clem. “The whole idea was to give you the ability to get your bike and put it on the bed yourself. You don’t need any help.”
Annette fondly remembers the first time Phil used the bike. She says he got the hang of it immediately, began singing and was absolutely beaming with joy at how much freedom it gave him after previously being only being able to exercise for an hour each day.
When Phil was deemed healthy enough to move back to Lower Hutt, his home before taking up work in Queenstown, the PhilBike moved back with him. It was around this time that Clem started thinking about commercialising the idea, but he knew a lot of work had to be done on the design for this to be possible.
Lower Hutt based outfit Lipher Design was commissioned to take the PhilBike to the next level through refining the concept and design. Their work culminated in two separate bikes – a slicker, more compact version of the original PhilBike for use in the bed, and a similar, adjusted design for wheelchair use.
It was a clear upgrade on the PhilBike Mk I but the biggest problem, according to Clem, was that it wasn’t a one-stop shop. “What we realised during this point was that there was one limiting factor with this whole design that would prevent it from being a marketable product: it wasn’t one-bike-does-it-all.”
In December 2010, Clem decided to take matters into his own hands. “I was reliant on designers and their expertise,” he says. “I couldn’t keep going down that road of constantly designing, so I decided that I was going to do it myself.”
After receiving some funding from Grow Wellington when it saw some potential in the Lipher Design prototype, Clem had just enough money to buy the materials needed to get to work. Until that point, Clem and his family, along with the help of some generous friends, had been funding the project entirely from their own pockets.
Clem locked himself away in his garage and started designing and building a prototype of the one-stop shop bike he had been dreaming about. “This is how I should have done it in the first place,” he says. “You have to do this first. It’s the fundamentals of the whole thing. But you also need to make mistakes, as you can’t get it right every time.”
Using drainpipe and timber, Clem and his friend Roy Hoare built a bike with a pivoting panel that could put the user in any angle on a bed, in a wheelchair, and could be folded down and stacked away. Phil tested the prototype out and it worked. There were a few minor issues, but it was ready to move on to the next stage. Before this, however, Annette says they had to come up with a new name.
“It started off as a family project. That’s why it was called the PhilBike,” she says. “It was kind of like to inspire us all to keep on track after a massive tragedy. We all needed a feel-good factor to keep us on board. If it does nothing else but help Phil then so be it.”
It became the YouBike because they needed a “more holistic name”, Clem says. “We needed something that was not going to personalise it too much, had a quality about it that people remember, and is simple, effective and available.”
When they stumbled across the name YouBike they knew they were onto a winner. It ticked all the boxes and really emphasised that the product was about empowering the individual.
After Clem met engineering consultant Andrew Rodger and his friends at WelTec Connect, the commercial and services arm of the Wellington Institute of Technology, “the whole thing really started to come alive”. With a history in mechanical engineering and a love for working on the back-end of projects, Rodger says the YouBike project was a perfect fit.
“We took the prototype and spent a lot of time working out how we could make it cheaper and lighter, and we got an industrial designer involved who was really key to the aesthetic [Aran Pudney of Quadrant HQ].”
The prototype supplied to WelTec was made from off-the-shelf aluminium extrusion with a fairly large diameter and a thick wall. It was redesigned with a thinner walled extrusion and a custom extrusion die was used to optimise the shape. The band brake clamp was also replaced, allowing the diameter of the tube to be smaller, and a small computer was added to communicate vital workout information.
Clem says it’s just amazing to look back on how the bike has evolved. The WelTec design is sharper, aesthetically pleasing, and importantly, much lighter. The first PhilBike weighed roughly 25kg; the current model now weighs just 14kg – essential to the user being able to lift the bike onto the bed without any help.
Rodger says Clem made WelTec’s job easier by doing an outstanding job in the initial design process. “What we found on the project that drove me nuts was every time we tried to improve something that Clem had done, he had done such a bloody good job on it in terms of the geometry and the angles, and all the real fundamentals were already there. A lot of people express amazement when they hear the story that this only took six months, but it didn’t take six months – it took four years.”
Despite spending only six months on the design, WelTec’s contribution to the YouBike gave it the kick it needed to be ready for the market. Its knowledge of costs and the route required to market was critical to it being picked up at a trade show in Dusseldorf, Germany. Only a handful of YouBikes were made and taken over, but the high quality of the products and their cost-effectiveness got people talking.
“People who were seeing it for the first time couldn’t tell the difference between a production bike and a prototype because of the methodologies and materials we had used,” says Rodger. The impression the YouBike made at the trade show really showcased its quality to the world.
Manufacturing the bikes on a larger scale was now the central focus so the team set up for production. Currently, the biggest export markets for the YouBike are the early-adopter markets of the UK and Europe, but there are many other countries Clem and the YouBike team are confident of breaking into.
Rodger says trying to enter the American market has been a big challenge because people who have used high-tech rehabilitation machines have the perception the YouBike is a lower-range product. But Clem says its simplicity, affordability and adaptability is what makes it what it special.
Occupational therapists and rehabilitation clinics are obvious candidates to purchase the products, but Clem was adamant from the start that it was also affordable for consumers. It’s already dirt-cheap compared to other exercise bikes and Clem eventually wants to make it even cheaper.
The YouBike has already been lauded for its ability to help people with spinal injuries, paraplegics, stroke patients, and others rehabilitate themselves on their own time. While there are plenty of exercise machines for rehabilitation on the market, there are no competitors offering quite the same product. Clem says there are a couple of companies making similar wheelchair versions, but they weigh 50kg and take two hours to assemble.
The YouBike comes ready to go and its ability to be used on a bed is a world-first. Clem also says the current version of the bike is by no means the last – he and WelTec are exploring other variations of the YouBike, currently undergoing research and development.
Climbing a mountain
More than five years have passed since Phil tragically slipped into a coma and was forced to build a new life. But Clem says although it has taken a lot of hard work, Phil is now “kicking ass”. While Phil has been the absolute inspiration behind the YouBike, the bike has also inspired him to achieve things people would never have imagined.
“His physical fitness is great,” says Clem. “He’s regained a lot of his movement and this has really helped him. It comes down to better circulation and being able to do it himself. He always has the bike in the corner of his room, and can just give himself a good two-hour workout whenever he wants.”
On average, Phil cycles 120km a week. Thanks to the superior fitness he’s gained from using the YouBike, Phil was recently able to walk with a walking frame outside his property for the first time in five years.
But one of the biggest testaments to how far Phil has come is through achieving something truly remarkable – entering the 160km Lake Taupo Cycling Challenge last November.
A man living nearby, Neil Davis, heard about Phil’s story somehow and decided to seek him out. The pair became friends and Davis helped set up the process to fundraise for a paraplegic bike.
“We created this loose team and decided we’d enter the Taupo bike race,” Clem says. “We’ve got these two bikes, one is a tricycle up the front, and Phil’s one is attached to the back of that. Neil steers and Phil rides.”
Five years ago such a feat was unthinkable for Phil. Annette says his amazing recovery has astounded the whole family.
“He’s gone from not being able to see and hear his children, and having to get through that period of, ‘Oh God, I can’t believe this has happened to me’, to actually being a really strong person and thinking this is my life and I’m going to go out there and do what I can.”
The evolution of the YouBike
What makes the evolution of the first PhilBike to the YouBike that’s on the market today truly remarkable is that the lion’s share of the design process was conducted by someone with no mechanical engineering background – and it was largely self-funded until the later stages.
While WelTec undoubtedly gave it the boost it needed to be a commercial success, founder Clem Thorn began the trial by design process four years prior to its involvement.
The first version of the bike, the PhilBike Mk I, was made of basic alloy tube with off-the-shelf fittings. It was very heavy and had to be dismantled to get on the plane from Wellington to Phil’s hospital in Dunedin.
The second prototype was designed on a computer for bed use, but sharpened up for commercial possibilities. A wheelchair version was also designed, and both were made with the same materials and off-the-shelf fittings including pulleys and brakes.
A major shift in design took place at stage three as the bike became a dual bed/wheelchair unit. The bike was built with plastic drainpipe and wood. A fold-down column supported by a sliding stay was incorporated and the running gear from the first bike was transferred over. The sliding stay was added to negate the column movement caused from the band-brake.
The next version was made using the same specs in stage three but was built from alloy tube and off-the-shelf alloy profiles. The band-brake was removed, and the cogs and belts were upgraded. It weighed 25kg and was basically a stronger, more robust version of the previous design.
Based on this fourth prototype, WelTec designed the current YouBike but made it far lighter and easier to fabricate and assemble. It was redesigned with thinner walled extrusion and the extrusion shape was optimised to give a more rigid column, a major factor in allowing the weight to drop to 14kg. Plastic covers, an on-board computer and special features including detachable cranks and hand-grips were also added.
Phil undertook a testing regime over a few months, in which he cycled around 2,000km without any major hiccups.
And while this was the version that was showcased to the world at a tradeshow in Dusseldorf, Clem says it’s by no means the last design.