Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos

A World Within Reach: The Power of Active Hands with Founder Rob Smith

May 12, 2023
A World Within Reach: The Power of Active Hands with Founder Rob Smith
Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos
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Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos
A World Within Reach: The Power of Active Hands with Founder Rob Smith
May 12, 2023

Welcome to this Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos episode, where we explore Rob Smith's innovative company, Active Hands.

Today's episode focuses on Rob's experience following a spinal cord injury and his challenges in finding suitable gripping aids. 

Realizing the need for better solutions, Rob designed and developed prototypes in his home, eventually founding Active Hands in 2008.

He has designed and manufactured a  variety of gripping aids and assistive products offered by Active Hands, which have been used by disabled people worldwide. 


Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to this Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos episode, where we explore Rob Smith's innovative company, Active Hands.

Today's episode focuses on Rob's experience following a spinal cord injury and his challenges in finding suitable gripping aids. 

Realizing the need for better solutions, Rob designed and developed prototypes in his home, eventually founding Active Hands in 2008.

He has designed and manufactured a  variety of gripping aids and assistive products offered by Active Hands, which have been used by disabled people worldwide. 


Phil Friend  0:11  
Hello, everybody, and welcome to another Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos podcast. Thank you for joining us. I have today a slightly different approach; we've got a chap called Rob Smith with us, who runs his own business, active hands. And as you'll see in the next few minutes, this is very relevant to disabled people, and people who are interested in tech and various gadgets that help them overcome any of the issues that they're trying to manage. So, welcome, Rob. How are you doing?

Rob Smith  0:40  
Good. Thank you. Yeah, a lovely sunny day out here in my conservatory is looking out in the garden, my little home office,

Phil Friend  0:47  
very nice too, it beats commuting.

Rob Smith  0:51  
The commute from the kitchen is never too much traffic.

Phil Friend  0:55  
Exactly. So Rob, thank you so much for giving up some of your time for us today. And I thought, as we always tried to do it would be worth starting with just a bit about your background and your own personal journey, and sharing why you know why disability and so on is of interest to you. So wherever you'd like to start, really,

Rob Smith  1:14  
OK so my journey as a person in relation to disability, I suppose, started when I was 20 years old, I was at Warwick University studying mechanical engineering; it's my degree. And I went on holiday with some friends to Devon. And I managed to find my way to the bottom of a cliff via the quick method, which wasn't the plan. So I spent nine months in Salisbury district hospital because that was my local spinal unit to the incident. And I attained a C five/six, incomplete spinal cord injury. So from that point onwards, my lower body and my upper body hand function, and others, were affected quite severely by that injury. And 20 odd years later, I am a wheelchair user; my hand function is quite severely affected. But now I run a business making products for people with disabilities that affect their hands.

Phil Friend  2:15  
So it's no great mystery is it how the business came about in terms of your injury, and your interest in people with, obviously, manual dexterity issues and other issues? I suppose the good fortune if that's what you'd call it, is that you were kind of doing mechanical engineering. So you've got a background in sort of engineering problem solving that kind of stuff, would you say?

Rob Smith 2  2:38  
Yeah, definitely. I, I've always been a problem solver. And I've actually also always been a bit of an entrepreneur. So from a young age, I had my own little craft business, selling gift cards and jewellery and things at local craft shops. And the two kind of came together when my disability started, I suppose. And the initial reason for setting up the company as I had some frustration of, there not being a product that I could go and use in the gym, to lift weights to kind of help me with my wheelchair sports. Because I couldn't lift, I couldn't hold any of the weights with my hands and my arms were quite strong, but my hands wouldn't grip anything. So this is where active hands began, I asked my mum to help me on a home sewing machine to devise a few products using my mechanical engineering skills. When after a few different practice prototypes, we came up with what we now know is our general purpose gripping aid, which is our one of our biggest selling products with active hands today. And from that point, we kind of went on developing new products and the company slowly grew.

Phil Friend  3:50  
So it's, I mean, it's says it like it's on the tin in the active hands. Obviously, for people that are tetraplegic where their hand controls not great, but what about people say like people with arthritis in their hands and those kinds of conditions does this? Do your products kind of cater for them to

Rob Smith  4:08  
Yes, we do. I mean, initially to begin with. I think my my frustration I realised that my lower body wasn't going to work very well and but it wasn't long before I realised that the thing that affected my life more was things in my upper body in my hand function. So when I initially started active hands, it was more sort of catering for the areas of knowledge that I had, which was to do with people with tetraplegia can high level spinal cord injuries. I used to be a wheelchair rugby player now I do wheelchair racing. So I had a lot of people wanting to be active and going to the gym, that kind of area. As our company expanded and more people heard about us we would get people who've got cerebral palsy, people with MS people with strokes, arthritis, and all these other disabilities coming to us to say it Do your products kind of work? For me? They're quite good in these areas, but my disability is slightly differently. So can you design something, for me that helps with my disability related to hand function. So particularly one of those was a lot of people would come to us with limb difference. So they were missing fingers or parts of hands or parts of arms, either through later injury, life or through and birth. So we developed products to help with them as well. So as we increased our own knowledge, we developed products that would help wider and wider groups of people were hand functioning as an issue.

Phil Friend  5:34  
So going back to your mum and her sewing machine. That's brilliant how these things start, isn't it? Mum on a sewing machine. You said you were an entrepreneur, clearly you got the engineering background, you've got personal experiences disability, which you wanted to sort out, you came up with ideas around devices that you could then use personally. You mentioned you were an entrepreneur before. So it seems pretty logical that you will be thinking about setting up a company now, there will be some people we know that employment opportunities for disabled people are often difficult for all sorts of reasons. You solve that problem by setting up your own business. But just a minute or two on how that worked. Was that easy for you to do? Was it difficult? Did you you know, did you encounter any major hassles on the way to setting up the organisation itself?

Rob Smith  6:26  
It's quite interesting story. And at the time, I made the inventions but I didn't see it as being a huge business, which I was going to get involved with. Because I was at University at the time, I was very much into travelling as backpacker. And I was into a lot of music, things like that. So as my mum started just making a few here and there, it wasn't a plan for her really to set up a business either. But lots of people asked us or can you make more for me, can you make more for me. And it just developed very, very slowly, kind of with me, helping with the sort of promotion of it, and the design side, but not being really involved in the business. And actually, at the time, I had set up another business, which was to do with events and DJing, and club promotion and corporate events. And I ran that business, and it was growing very well up until about 2008 when the financial crisis happened. Nobody wanted to spend any money on on events when they can't keep people in jobs. So it was at that stage really, when active hands have grown from a very small company where you might sell, you know, five units in a month, up to selling a few more than that and having its own website. And at that time, my mum sadly passed away with cancer and myself and my sister and dad sort of took on the business, made it into a limited company and decided that, you know, we were going to really put our efforts into this, to take it from just a small concern, helping a few people here and there to see if we could make it much bigger and help many more people worldwide. It was actually quite slow process. 

Phil Friend  8:10  
So clearly, it was you saw that the active hands business had more potential and could could bring in a living rather than your DJing. And that kind of stuff, did you?

Rob Smith  8:22  
Well, with the events company as well, it was becoming quite a good company. It was it wasn't a big earner, but it had the potential and I did some big events towards the end of 2008, which unfortunately couldn't be capitalised on, but also active hands is going away in the background. And I was doing work for active hands unpaid just you know sort of covering expenses going out to spinal units and doing product design developments and, and those kinds of things out of my own interest. But it wasn't actually until I think it was 2011 that we entered the Stelios Entrepreneur Award. I think we entered the year before as well and got to the final but didn't win. And then the next year we entered again. And there was a big fat cheque for 50,000 pounds, which is you know, a large, massively substantial amount when we weren't really paying ourselves a salary. And myself and my sister decided like, you know, we've got some money in the bank. Let's give ourselves a small salary each and see what we can do in the next couple of years just to see if we can develop this to a proper business that can support us financially as well.

Phil Friend  9:35  
Yeah. And unlike I guess, many spinal cord injured people, you didn't get any compensation or anything like that when you were injured. So it really was a question then the loss of your mum that must have been a terrible time for you.

Rob Smith  9:49  
Yeah, it was a tough time. And you know, she had had cancer back when I was younger and it gone away and then come back. As these things sometimes do. And I think active hands, we, we were quite happy to let it be her little baby because she had kind of been a home, like mum for a long time and had not been working consistently for a while. And this was a really big step for her. And a really big thing for her to do is, you know, being a business owner. So we wanted to let her run with it, and help her as much as we could along the way to help it get built up. You know, she could look at it now she wouldn't believe what we're what we're up to these days. And you know, how many countries we reach and how many different disabilities and people we support with the active hands company now?

Phil Friend  10:42  
Yeah, I mean, I suppose in some ways, it you know, watching her son, end up in a wheelchair, and then finding a very practical way to make a difference to that, was just a brilliant sort of circular thing. Yeah. And you were living at home, of course, and she was looking after your family worked, I guess immediately after your injury, but

Rob Smith  11:06  
only briefly. Yeah. So I had my injury to my second and third year of uni. And I came home from the hospital in about April. And I was determined to go back to finish my final year of uni in the preceding September, October. So I spent that whole time doing all I could to be as independent as possible to be able to go back and finish that final year, staying at the university rather than at home.

Phil Friend  11:33  
Yeah, yeah. So I mean, as a really interesting sort of backstory to how this all comes about, isn't it? It's funny how the pieces all somehow fit together to to bring you to where you are now. But so, obviously, the business is doing well. You're developing products all the time. What I mean, aside from the work you did for yourself, to enable yourself to be more independent and use your hands in different ways. What would you say has been the best, or the most successful product that active hands has produced thus far,

Rob Smith  12:07  
I think probably our biggest seller. And still the best product is the kind of initial one that I did. That's it's so versatile. It's called our general purpose gripping aid. And it just works so well. It's very simple, yet, we've made little tiny little tweaks to it, which you might not notice if you're not a user, but things that help you help the wrist strap not come on down and help you push the overhand strap through the buckle and make it not flop around all these little tweaks that we've made over the years to make it work perfectly for our users. That's still our best seller. But we've we've got lots of new ones, we've recently just brought out an angled aide, which is similar, but it's for holding sort of tennis rackets and that kind of thing table tennis bats. We've got a lot of feedback from customers saying, you know, do you produce this product? Can you make this for me. And there's always products in the pipeline. We've raised we, we started off mostly making things with neoprene and webbing. But over the last few years, we've gone on to making things from plastics and metals, and mainly still low tech, we don't really deal much with sort of electronics and in high-tech items, but that is in the background as well. But we've also recently just bought ourselves a pretty superduper 3d printer. And we're looking at developing a load of products, which we will be manufacturing with that, which we can prototype with in the office now. So,

Phil Friend  13:41  
um, where did you get your stuff made? Is that made in the UK? Or is it made abroad, you go to different suppliers,

Rob Smith  13:46  
everything's made in the UK, some of the components might be made abroad. And there, there are very few number of items. Well, there are some items we put buy in which we don't manufacture. But the ones that we manufacture ourselves, pretty much nearly everything is made in the UK, just because it keeps us close to the sort of manufacturer side of things so we can keep on top of quality control. Yeah, we have at stages had a few things manufactured overseas, and they're okay for the first order or two and then the quality starts to slip and it becomes you're spending more in people sending things back then you are in the cost that you saved from getting stuff done overseas.

Phil Friend  14:29  
Yeah. And I suppose you've reminded so that this kind of continuous improvement that you've been doing with that you develop a product then you work on it, work on it work, get feedback. And it's interesting that, you know, contrary to a lot of opinions, you know, you're clearly making a successful business by being supplied within the UK because we often hear of people going abroad because it's so much cheaper and so did Brexit play any part in your decision or is that not been relevant? 

Rob Smith  15:00  
Yeah, I can we can talk about Brexit, but lots of people with lots of different opinions. I don't rob Yes, absolutely why? The thing we're probably struggling with at the moment, we have found it a little bit more difficult to trade with Europe. We've found ways around it, but it's been difficult with the thing that we've probably been bothered by is that we would normally get some funding via European sources to go to places like Europe and, and do shows and exhibitions, and they would pay for that 50% of that, that was not happening anymore. And on the flip side, what could have happened with Brexit is that we could have got some money to go to America or somewhere else, to to expand our sales out there, that were actually for the first time going out to America this year to a big show, and there's no funding at all to help us with that. So just cost and stuff like that. I haven't, it's probably best we don't go about Brexit for too much, because I know divides opinion. 

Phil Friend  15:57  
Yeah, I think but but from your point of view, just purely leave aside all the politics, that's not really relevant for our conversation. But what is relevant is your ability to provide products to disabled people worldwide. And if that's made more difficult for you, then clearly disabled people at the end of it, get get less of a service. So you do see yourself really as international and that's where you're gonna move to, is it? 

Rob Smith  16:21  
Yeah, no, we've, we probably sell 70% of our products overseas, probably 50% in the US or North America. So we are we have always been international because we're such a niche market. Yes. And like so we, we are listening to the feedback of our customers, from all different disability types and all different places around the world and what products they need. And we are led with new products and improvements on our current products very much by that. And going back onto what you said about having disabled people at the heart of the kind of the whole process. So it's really important that you get a very much a better product and a better customer service when you know that someone has skin in the game essentially that you know, you know what you're talking about. You've been to these different organisations, you know, who the society is you might be selling to and the the way that these products are going to be used, because either I use them myself or I know people who who do. So I think that's very key. And I think it also just makes products so much better, when the person who's designing them now has got personal experience of how they're going to be used as well.

Phil Friend  17:37  
Obviously, your products initially were driven by your own need, I can't do this. If I make this, then I can do it. And obviously then the benefit is to everyone else. So over the so clearly you're still building your business, §still looking for opportunities across the world so on and so forth, in terms of this 3D printer you mentioned a few minutes ago, I don't know much about them, I do know that they're they're incredibly exciting in that what you may be able to do with them. Presumably, this will lead to some really different products for you will it it will enable you to develop and design things in a very different way.

Rob Smith  18:17  
Yes, I mean, the 3d printer we deliberately purchased is a bit of a more of a high end one, in that it produces a nice finish on a product. So we're 3d printing is great for prototyping, you can produce components and sometimes full assemblies, which would be impossible to produce cheaply. Otherwise, the one that we've got, we hope to be able to produce some end products, not just the prototypes themselves. So when you're doing small runs of things in plastic, it's just not cost effective. Because making the moulds, you generally need to be printing off sort of 10,000 units of something before you start covering the cost of the mould manufacture. Whereas we can print off, you know, 10 or 20 of an item at a good quality finish, and then sell it for, you know, a decent amount because it's a nice finish. We don't know, we don't know whether a product sometimes it's going to be really successful. Or we're just going to sell a few of them. So we can start, you know in that area where we're just knocking out small numbers. But it also means that we can produce bespoke items. So like I said before, I'm a wheelchair racer. So anything wheelchair racing is that people produce their own wheelchair racing gloves, which are like hard plastic gloves where you essentially punch the wheel with them. So I'm currently on I don't even know what to tell you what number of prototype I am of getting it right. And I'm sort of sampling it with my racing group to try and make them correct the sort of the setup of this very organic shape which fits onto your hand. But we can then take people's measurements hopefully You know that they can take it home and send us evidence of and then we can make little tweaks to the CAD of it, the computer aided design kind of that goes into the 3d printer. And then we can make gloves, which is bespoke to that person, which is a real advantage of 3d printing. And when we can produce that with a nice finish, that becomes a product that we're able to sell. So that's an area we're really excited about. And it feels a bit more engineering sometimes, for me, even some of the stuff that we work on.

Phil Friend  20:32  
And what about the use of plastics? Because that's a big kind of planet. Green issue, isn't it? Are you able to work your way around the issues of single use plastics, or is that it's been

Rob Smith  20:45  
It depends what sort of material we printed, so we can print in some materials which can be reused. But the difficulty with 3d printing isn't most things, it comes from a sort of extrusion of a sort of a wire of the plastic, really can't once it's been heated, and then cooled can't be reused again. But once we get to the point of having what we want, and being able to deliver to the customer, their exact glove, then we hope that that will produce less waste, because we're getting it right for the customer. Yes, so

Phil Friend  21:18  
you're not, you're not making hundreds of 1000s of these. So

Rob Smith  21:22  
now it's gonna be it's again, a very bespoke bespoke sort of very niche market. So we'll be selling all over the world. But it will be, you know, small numbers.

Phil Friend  21:32  
So we know we know what you do and how you do it. And we know that you're moving into the international sales area for that. What do you how do you see the next two or three years then for active hands? Maybe for you personally, how do you see the future going?

Rob Smith  21:49  
I think probably more of this sort of stuff with the, with the bespoke work. And with the 3d printed stuff. We've also got a product that we're developing at the moment, which is a bit more electronics based using some of this sort of new and cheaper technology that now has become available with sort of programming and small scale electronics, to produce a some sort of a grabber system, which I think, has potential to have to be really useful to lots of people. But there's definitely lots of work and that is happening. We're kind of struggling to have enough time to do it. Also, we're employing people and increasing hours as we go, which is a great feeling. And in a time when financially, it's you know, some of the world is struggling, including ourselves. So that's a really positive thing. You always have to be a bit cautious because you never quite know what's around the corner.

Phil Friend  22:47  
No, but it's, it's that kind of classic conundrum. Isn't there a good? A good problem is where you got too much work the bad problems where you got none. So it's both difficult, but you got to manage them in different ways. And what about for you personally? So the business is clearly does take up an enormous amount of your time, and you're making a big success of it by the sound of it. And long may that continue. But what about for Rob? Personally, what are you? Are you still DJing he's still leaping about to events.

Rob Smith  23:15  
Not so nice things, I finished DJing. I did a regular night at the University where I used to go until about five or six years ago. But I've I've not really done anything in that area. And I've got a nine year old and a four year old now. So when they're quite young, you just want to spend as much time with him as you can. And they're quite a handful as well. But hard work often. And with my wheelchair racing as well. There's not too much time to do much else to be honest.

Phil Friend  23:46  
And wheelchair racing, what are your ambitions there?

Rob Smith  23:50  
I'm not no spring chicken anymore. So I keep going as long as I can. And I do train pretty much every day I try and carve out myself a little slot to keep fitting active. But yeah, I'd like to complete all over the world marathon majors, which I've got a couple left to do. And then there's, there's an outside chance of selection for something on the track in the future. But for me, there's not much in relation to long distance events. So it's unlikely

Phil Friend  24:17  
Mind you that sounds like enough to me. Just listening to you talk about it. I suppose the other thing you could have Rob is like you're doing some sports. You could have a kind of vets event couldn't you where the over 40s or whatever. I mean, in tennis, they have people playing sixty years of age don't they?

Rob Smith  24:34  
they certainly do it on people. Yeah, they certainly do in in the sort of running events as an over different age group categories. I think those it's important for people with disabilities just to keep a healthy lifestyle for long as possible because, you know, we we our bodies will deteriorate in a different way as we get older, as well as more severely than someone who's able bodied. So And, and there's always been a lot of talk about, you know Paralympic level and high level competition for people with disabilities but I think we need to bring into the conversation lifelong health and and well and fitness for people with disabilities as well I think there needs to be something we talked about a lot more that we are doing these forms of sport and exercise for our health rather than for competition at a high level.

Phil Friend  25:30  
Well, you know, I can't argue with any of that I'm I'm vice chair of the Activity Alliance, which is an umbrella organisation that promotes physical activity and and elite sport for disabled people and there is no question you're right about the health benefits Absolutely. so crucial. So well, I'm what I'd better do is set up a podcast on the Activity Alliance and and get you in for that as well. But Rob, this has been brilliant, thank you so much for your time. And it sounds to me like you're sitting on a very, very exciting future with the with the the kit that you're designing and building for disabled people, obviously, but also your own desire to stay fit and spread the word because for anybody looking at your website, clearly you're an ambassador for what can be achieved for disabled people if they set their minds to it. So thank you so much for joining me today. 

Rob Smith  26:29  
Thanks for your time.

Phil Friend  26:31  
 If you'd like to share your stories about how you use technology to overcome some of the barriers that your disability puts in your way, then please contact me at Or you can look up the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers details on their website, which is Thanks very much and I look forward to hearing from you

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