The first time Martin Rooke experienced back pain was after sitting in a car for 9 hours when he was in his early 20s. As a young and fit person, with no history of back injury, he was not high-risk for back pain. But sitting in car for so long proved something for him.
It doesn’t matter who you are, car seats can cause back pain. “We forget that most car seats are about 25 to 35cm off the floor and we don’t have seats like that outside of the car,” he says.
The experience struck a cord with Rooke, who is a UK-raised, Wellington-based osteopath. In 2003, he started thinking up some ideas that might work. He used a number of different lumbar supports in his practice, but none of them were perfect.
About one in four adults experience some form of back pain on any given day. “The one thing you can’t do in a car seat is get up and walk around and you’re your muscles pumping," he says. "I wanted to make a poorly fitting vehicle seat have the same ergonomic support we now expect to see in a standard office chair.”
Rooke wanted to create something that would prevent people from experiencing back pain in situations when sitting for long periods was unavoidable. By 2007, he had set up a company and teamed up with industrial designer Jenny Keate to get his idea off the ground.
After conducting research and putting together a prototype, it became clear the idea was likely to work. Years of fine-tuning the design and testing different versions in New Zealand led to the first Morfit being released for sale in 2013.
The Morfit is malleable like a beanbag and uses vacuum technology to “save” the individuals shape, becoming firm and supportive. But Rooke didn’t want to release just any product into the market. There were already a number of products in the market that didn’t work for everyone.
He wanted to create something that, in theory and practise, should be suitable for any car and any person, when the seat does not fit. “I had no interest in making something for the sake of making something," he says. “It had to work and fill a number of requirements.”
One of the most important things for Rooke was affordability. Many top-of-the-range cars come with suitable lumbar support built-in, but few people can afford to buy them.
The Morfit is now being used not just in cars, but all sorts of vehicles, including helicopters, racing cars and trucks. CentrePort Wellington uses them in straddle carriers.
The startup has come a long way from the initial idea. The manufacturing has now moved to China and they launched the product in the UK this week.