Christian Bagg once identified himself as a journeyman machinist, but more recently, he’d tell you he’s an inventor and entrepreneur by trade; “I design and build things. That’s the easiest way that I can tell people what I do. I design and build anything really. I have two very separate lives. One is lived creating research equipment for medical physics for the cancer center in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and the other is lived creating adaptive equipment for people who have disabilities to help them get outside.” Christian’s business partner, Jeff Adams, is a six-time world champion Canadian Paralympian who has competed at six consecutive Summer Paralympics from 1988 to 2008. Christian describes Jeff as his opposite, “he’s a smart, aggressive, red-headed Irish guy who is very organization oriented. I’m pretty laid back and I just stopped listening to all of that. Usually, I just have a design going on in the back of my mind I want to build so that I can do something fun.”
Christian’s recently added a new role to his resume. A new dad, Christian needed a wheelchair that would help him take care of his newborn son. “Babies spend a ton of time on the ground because they can’t stand up, so I wanted a chair that I could play with him in. So with SOLIDWORKS, I made this crazy chair that drops down instantly to within eight inches of the ground. That’s a super cool chair. It’s not refined, but it does something that so many people need because lots of people can’t even get back into their chair from the ground if they fall out. It can help transfer at different heights as well as many other applications like the one I’ve found with my son.”
Christian’s inventiveness is born of necessity. An avid outdoorsman, he loves to explore the wilderness. “The reason all of this actually came to be was because I went on a cross country ski trip with my then-girlfriend, now wife, to this mountain hut that was about twelve miles away. I was strong and confident in the mountains. She was from Ontario, which isn’t mountainous, and she was really relying on me, as were the two other friends who went with us. It was supposed to be a three night trip. We get going, and if you’ve ever cross-country skied, the terrain was groomed and very level and that’s what I had trained on. It wasn’t until we got deeper into the unknown and the trail sort of ended that we encountered a problem. You’re not necessarily bushwhacking, but it’s a rough trail. It’s not groomed. If you’re familiar with snow and trees, there are tree wells where the snow that accumulates around the tree is very soft and less dense. When you ski by it, your foot that’s closest to the tree sinks down a few inches and your knee bends, your brain doesn’t skip a beat and you keep going. But my sit ski, which was basically a chair bolted to some skis was very rigid and I just poled. When I go by, it’s like eight inches wide, and a two inch differential is like 25 degrees and I’d just tip into the tree well every time. And if you’re familiar with the outdoors, there are a lot of trees! So this happened…a lot. Every thirty feet a lot. It slowed our progress, deep in the mountains during a snow storm to a snail’s pace, to the point where when we were about half a mile from this cabin, it got so bad I ditched my sit ski. They were all freezing and I felt terrible. They took my sit ski and I scooched on my butt, backwards through the snow, for an hour and a bit, in the dark by myself. It was then that I realized ‘I have to change this.’ And that’s where the articulating leaning assembly that’s on the Icon Explore came from. It first came from cross-country skiing, trying to figure out how to deal with a side slope without tipping over.”
“For me, getting outside was number one. Getting a piece of equipment to take me a little further and a little further was number two, and once I hit specific problems I needed to solve, that’s when SOLIDWORKS became an invaluable tool to me, because my problems kept getting much more complex. There’s too much going on for my head to handle and to get it right. When you’re building something all by yourself, wasting time making stuff that doesn’t work isn’t an option. There just isn’t enough time in my life to get it right. And so on that uppy-downy chair, that’s the official name by the way, there are gas shocks and the footrest is shooting out. I’d started that chair three weeks before my son, Oliver, was born. I started designing and had it built in three weeks…there’s no way I could have done that without SOLIDWORKS. I’m very excited that the sit ski will also be featured in the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa when it reopens in November 2017.
You volunteer your designs to local camps and parks to help others experience the great outdoors as well. Tell us a bit about that.
“Again, it all started back when I was trying to figure out how to get outside myself. I created this three-wheeled off road thing and it was rusty in its inception. I was working for Alberta Parks at the time, and a person from Easter Seals Camp Horizon, which is a disabled kids camp west of Calgary in the mountains, approached me and asked if they could borrow it for one of their campers to go on their annual fundraiser, the Banded Peak Challenge. Able-bodied people would sign up and run to the top of this mountain, and be timed, and they would get people to sponsor them and the money raised goes to the camp. Ironically, for a disabled kids camp in the mountains, their fundraising thing didn’t include the kids going outside, so they were really excited about this device I created and wanted to try it. So this little girl named Lindsay, who is pretty non-verbal, and could sort of stand up but she would move at a snail’s pace, and was pretty fragile, was our first Icon Explorer.”
“We sat Lindsay in it and taught some of her friends how to use and navigate it. We hooked them up to the front sort of like a dogsled. Lindsay could steer and off they went. I was pretty terrified that it was going to break and this little girl was going be stranded on a mountain somewhere. When you’re a builder, you build stuff just to get to use it and see how it works. You don’t really ask yourself, ‘is this reliable?’ So, she took off, and hours and hours and hours later, it’s about an eight mile hike out and back, she comes back and her mom was waiting at the bottom. Her mom tells the story, and it’s a tearjerker, because her mom said that Lindsay, who rarely speaks, said that this was the best day of her life. And not in the way you and I say it, you know, ‘that was the best time ever.’ This was legitimately the best day of this little girl’s life. And it was something that I could create, and re-create. That’s where the divergence of making something for me versus making something that could help others happened. Up to this point, I had been jaded by the manual wheelchair world and cynical about how it works, and here I was just making stuff for myself, like the chair that goes up and down and the Icon Explore. Then, I was presented with this gift, this amazing story and experience that I couldn’t deny trying to reproduce for these kids. She didn’t care that it was rusty and that it squeaked, and that it wasn’t perfection; she didn’t compare it to anything. She only had an unforgettable experience outdoors, and that’s sort of when the penny dropped and I realized, ‘I get to make something I think is super-cool, but that will always be trumped by the experience it gives someone.’ It’s not about whether the paint’s chipped or whether it has a carbon fiber fender or a fiberglass fender. It’s about the trees and the birds and the rivers, and the relationships formed, and the fun had, and all of these things that really matter. And I get to make a tool to help someone have that.
That’s when the Icon Explore really started. I made another Icon Explore that was more refined and the gates opened a bit. We were contacted by Arbor Lake Elementary School and they had a little boy named Hiroshi, who used a power chair and they were planning a Winter trip to Chester Lake.”
“The video says it all. You see these six kids tied to this contraption, running through the snow with snowshoes on, screaming to a halt and Hiroshi basically runs one over, and they’re all laughing and giggling. Prior to this, Hiroshi may have come, but would’ve stayed on the bus and done homework or maybe his teachers would have brought local plant species in, or the rocks, for him to see. He just wouldn’t have been involved. They would’ve done their best, but he wouldn’t have been involved in any real way. I’m sure the teachers get it because they’re teachers and they obviously do amazing things for kids, but Hiroshi and the other kids, especially in grade six, really don’t give a damn about the trees or the rocks or the species. They just want to have fun. Even including Hiroshi in the scholastic side of things is kind of giving him the shaft, because he just wants to run around outside. Seeing my inventions come to life is awesome, but they’re a hundredth of the feeling I get from when one of these kids has a blast. Or, even an adult that just doesn’t experience life the way I do. It’s the eye-opening that happens, not because of the coolness of the equipment but because of the experience it offers. It gives these kids an opportunity they don’t have very often, and that’s a chance to control the situation.”
“I put a motor on one, the first motorized one I took to Camp Horizon, and plan to do again…it just needs more safety protocols in place because it was pretty fast and because of the story I’m about to tell you. This little boy sat on it and I showed him how the throttle worked and told him, ‘only push it a little but until you get used to it, you don’t have to go fast, here’s the brake, and this is how it works.’ At the time, there was a news channel out doing a story for the lead up to the next Banded Peak Challenge for fundraising. With the cameras rolling, he gets in it, and obviously…obviously…the first thing he did was punch it as fast as it would go and, yeah. Because he weighs about 60 pounds, the back wheel just spins and gravel flies in the air, and he goes shooting down the road, makes a hard right turn, and flips over. He breaks the front footrest, and everyone’s yelling, ‘oh, no,’ running over to him concerned. We get there, and this kid is laughing his butt off. And all he wanted was to get tipped back up so he could go again. That’s what great about these camps, these kids aren’t delicate flowers who need to be protected against everything. The whole reason this camp exists is to treat them like kids. And so, they run over and tip him up, and let him go again. If I told you a story about a little able-bodied kid crashing, that’s normal. That’s what kids do. But for some reason it has more of an impact when it’s a little disabled kid. And it shouldn’t. That’s also why it’s so nice to make these things and to just let them be kids. That’s why Hiroshi’s video is so great, he runs over another kid, and it’s, ‘yeah, they’re just kids. Let them mix. Let them have fun.”
There’s a big difference between how kids approach other kids with disabilities, and how adults approach other adults with disabilities, somewhere along the way the perspective changes. Rather than sixth graders running around in the woods having fun with their friends, adults tend to see disabilities. How does the Icon Explore help to erase the stigma associated with people with disabilities?
“Well, it’s interesting. It takes adults a little longer. From my experience with Alberta Parks, there is a piece of equipment called a Trail Rider that preceded anything I did. It’s basically a wheelbarrow that you put a person in. It’s fancier, but those are the mechanics of it. It has one wheel, there’s someone behind holding handles, there’s people up front holding handles, and you walk the rider along. Alberta Parks had a few of these and they took people on trips, and the volunteer feedback was, ‘it’s amazing.’ And it is amazing. Anytime you can take someone somewhere they can’t go, it’s amazing. The story of the volunteers and the park staff was that it was this amazing day, emotions were running high, everyone’s acts as a unit and are feeling so good and passionate about what they’re doing. They’d get back from the hike and tears are shed and reflections of the day gone by and what they’ve done. These are the stories they’re telling me about the impact this piece of equipment has but I’m able, on a level, to talk to the people who they took and for them to be really honest with me because I’m also in a chair. The rider’s version is quite different. They’d say, ‘yeah, it was pretty awesome. It was great but I probably wouldn’t do it again. I didn’t love that I was with a bunch of strangers all day who were so happy about themselves and…’ Where I’m going with this is that as adults, we tend to look for personal successes in these things. If you can get a disabled kid up a mountain, you’ve done something and you should feel good about yourself. Versus a bunch of sixth graders who didn’t feel like they accomplished anything that day, they just had fun with someone else. There were no tears shed, they didn’t reflect on how great they were or pat themselves on the back, they were just having fun. It’s the same with the parents of children with a disability, or the friends, or the siblings. They have long since gotten past the, ‘I’m so great for helping my brother do something.’ That’s another aspect of this I want to focus on. I want to help make possible an experience where a family can just show up and borrow this thing as a family and not have a stranger with you on what could be a really important day.”
How do you change the adult perception where an able-bodied person pats themselves on the back because they’re doing something “good” to one where they revert back to a childlike state where disability is no longer a factor?
“Through continued development and refinement. The solution is rooted in design and engineering. For example, I would gather my able-bodied friends and we would go out to the mountains under the pretense of testing and trying the Icon Explore. In some ways, because we’re friends, it wasn’t a special day for them, but instead, it was a day about that piece of equipment. Over time and refinements, now I just get invited on mountain bike rides. My friend Christopher, who is an amazing athlete, called me and said, ‘hey, do you want to go mountain biking tonight?’ And then we go out there, and there’s his group of riding partners. The first time I thought to myself, ‘oh, crap.’ I was so used to testing this thing that my mindset hadn’t shifted. Christopher had actually gotten past it before I did. He was just thinking, ‘yeah, let’s just go biking.’ Now, I just get invited to go biking and it’s no different. I’ve worked at design and building for two decades to get to that point where I could go back into the outdoors on a level playing field.”
If you would like to see the Icon Explore live, you can find Christian and team at the Sea Otter Classic this weekend, where they will be introducing the Icon Explore for purchase in four different styles.
As always, thanks for reading! If you or someone you know has an amazing SOLIDWORKS story to tell, please reach out to me at SOLIDWORKS.Social@3DS.com and we’ll get to work!