June 7, 2020

Crain's Detroit

In the winter of 2017, Zoey Harrison went viral.

She was 9, then, and used a motorized wheelchair to get around. At school, it took her caregivers so much time in the winter to get her coat on, get her in her chair and wrap her legs in blankets that by the time they were done, recess was nearly over.

One day, she asked her mother, Jennifer, if she could make her something so getting ready for recess was quicker. "'Mommy, will you make me something that keeps me warm at recess? My blankets fall and don't stay tucked in, so cold air hits me'" Jennifer recalled.

The result is something Jennifer called a wheelchair bodycoat. Cutting two coats into pieces, she sewed a full length, insulated body wrap that could be affixed to Jennifer's wheelchair. When it came time for recess, she could just be put into the body wrap and be out in the cold in no time.

But the paraprofessional at the school who worked with Zoey couldn't figure out how it worked. They were supposed to attach the body wrap to the chair first, then place Zoey in it and zip it over her. But they were putting her in it first, then trying to attach it to the chair.

Doctors didn't think Zoey was going to survive when she was born with numerous medical conditions, including cerebral palsy, a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia and a brain condition called periventricular leukomalacia.

The Harrisons adopted Zoey when she was 1 year old. The Harrisons have 11 children, nine of them adopted.

"She loves life, and of course she has many bad moments with having multiple health issues, but despite that she lives up every good moment to the max," said Jennifer. "She has no filter, is spunky, smart and one of the most funny, faithful persons I have ever met."

Jennifer filmed a brief tutorial on how the coat works on her smartphone, but the file was too big to email. So she posted the one-minute video to her Facebook page for school officials to look at.

"I was going to take it down in a day," she said. A day later, her husband, John, a corrections officer in the mid-Michigan city of St. Louis, came home from work and told her the news: the video had been viewed 7,000 times. Jennifer, shocked, decided to leave it up. It took off from there and has now been seen 12 million times.

Zoey became a star of local TV news shows, and the family made appearances on Good Morning America and ABC World News Tonight. Newspapers as far away as the Daily Mail in London did feature stories.

Jennifer started getting requests from Facebook visitors who had special needs children to make wheelchair coats for them, too.

"A week later, I thought, 'Hey, this is a business,'" said Jennifer, a baker who was about to change professions and become an apparel manufacturer. "It's a very simple design, a simple idea. Why hadn't someone come up with this a long time ago? I don't consider myself a genius," she said.

In February 2018, she started a company, X-Ability LLC, and began making a few coats for early customers — slowly, paintstakingly, not at a pace that would sustain a business. The company is based in Ithaca but has been nurtured substantially by the Central Michigan University Research Corp., the nonprofit that manages the Mt. Pleasant SmartZone, and by the Mt. Pleasant Small Business Development Center. The CMURC helped her apply for a patent and assisted with supply-chain procurement and distribution. She took classes in accounting, taxes and marketing through the SBDC.

"When John and Jennifer came to CMURC, you couldn't help but get excited to see that they took something in their lives that had been a challenge and not only did they solve that challenge for themselves, but they also made a impact on so many others that faced the same challenge," said Elissa Gagne, the operations manager at CMURC. "The demand was evident, but they were making the coats at home and that was not sustainable."

The Harrisons were referred to CMURC through a company the Harrisons had gone to for some marketing materials, Alley T Screen Printing Embroidery & Promotional Products of Ithaca.

Jennifer was invited to join the SmartZone incubator's accelerator program, which takes very early stage would-be entrepreneurs and through three phases gets them ready for market and to meet investors. It is a free program, with four entrepreneurs accepted each month. The CMURC helped connect the Harrisons to a manufacturer, Grand Rapids-based AC Sewing Inc., and with Spider Marketing Group, a web designer and marketing company also based in Grand Rapids.

In November 2018, X-Ability was ready for the marketplace. In promotional materials, the "X" spreads over the "dis" in "disability," x-ing it out. Zoey has also been branded as "the girl who saved recess."

In the first four months, they had $100,000 in sales, with orders from around the world. They had hit $150,000 by the end of 2019, but sales slowed as they struggled to fund inventory needs. All of the proceeds have been put back into the company.

John was recovering from an operation when the coronavirus hit and decided it was a good time to retire and join X-Ability full time, with the title of vice president. Jennifer is president.

Currently, coat prices range from $115 for a chair raincoat to $138 for a child's winter coat to $185 for an adult coat to $215 for what is called a designer coat.

"They had a pain and they solved it, and they realized it was a pain for others ... and the business took off," said Tony Fox, the regional director of the Mt. Pleasant SBDC.

Which is where the real challenge comes in. "The problem with rapid growth is you have to make sure it is tenable, that it doesn't kill the company," said Fox. "That's been a lot of our work: How to scale when you see huge market demand."

A major component of fulfilling market demand will be figuring out how to finance it, whether through lines of credit, angel investors or both.

The hunt for capital is on hold until there is some semblance of normality with regard to the pandemic. But the need for capital has increased. The Harrisons had already added adult coats to their product line and need funding to expand the line of coats to include ski coats for the adaptive ski community. Sit skiing is a growing sport, very popular at the Paralympics, and they got design advice from those who run the adaptive skiing program at Caberfae Ski Resort in Cadillac.

Meanwhile, last November, Zoey was named Miss Wheelchair Michigan for 2020 and 2021, honored both for being the impetus for the wheelchair coat but also for helping a supply drive for a local animal rescue.