The only way is Upsee: Meet the Belfast man who gave new life to children worldwide by helping them to walk again with revolutionary harness
As a boy, inventor James Leckey used to scavenge around local dumps for pieces of prams. Una Brankin visits his Lisburn factory where dreams are now made.
James Leckey knows a good idea when he sees it and has plenty of his own. The boy who scavenged around Belfast's Ravenhill dumps for old prams has helped transform the lives of millions of disabled children around the world, and still wants to do more.
Back then young James was looking for parts to build go-karts; these days he's the head of the company that makes Upsee, the revolutionary harness which gives mobility to lifeless little limbs.
The simple but ingenious invention grabbed worldwide headlines after the Belfast Telegraph published an unforgettable photograph of a tiny disabled girl managing to walk up the aisle at a family wedding, thanks to James and the music therapist who had the idea for a walking harness to help her young son Rotem, who has cerebral palsy.
Israeli mother Debby Elnatan designed a support harness that would enable Rotem to stand upright and, by attaching it to herself, let parent and child take steps together – and dance, like the portly young girl standing on Ross Geller's shiny shoes at sister Monica's wedding in Friends.
After a worldwide search for a company to mass-produce her now famous Upsee, the Israeli mother chose Lisburn-based manufacturer Leckey, which has a long track record in making equipment for children with special needs.
James had been kicking the idea around in his head for years and the first time he spoke to Debby in 2001 (and again in 2007 and 2010) he knew it had great potential.
"We worked very hard for two years to develop it," he says. "When I saw this product I realised it was something completely new. It was more than a seating system that can help kids sit and stand – all those things are incredibly important for children with special needs."
The charismatic entrepreneur and inventor is showing me round his 80,000 sq ft offices and factory in Lisburn, where designers, engineers, textile experts and therapists from his Firefly team have been working on the project since 2012. Tall and good-looking (he's like a finer featured Mark Durkan, the former SDLP leader), this is a boss with 160 full-time employees who genuinely like and admire him. He hails and cracks jokes with everyone, from accounts to marketing to production, in the bright air-conditioned unit, a happy place run by a brilliant seven-man team to whom he gives all credit.
"He's always right in the middle of things – not that that's always a good thing!" says his young marketing man Eoin Alexander. "He's very energetic and hands-on; he's an ideas man and wants to get things done, fast. You wouldn't cross him but he's great."
The jeans-clad boss is at pains not only to praise his co-directors and employees, but also his partner Jane and his parents, mum Daphne (86) and his late father, John, of Leckey and Golden florists (formerly of Belfast's Royal Avenue), now run by his brother Alan and based in the Forestside Shopping Centre.
"I worked with flowers from the age of four, weddings and so on – it was drummed into me. From that I learned that the customer always comes first, which is the ethos of this company," he says.
As a teenager the budding businessman noticed the flowers in the family company's van were always tipping over, so he invented a pedestal to keep them in place, and sold 1,000 of them to Interflora. The Mr-Fix-It urge started at an early age, even before his first Lego set.
"Dad gave me a hammer and nails and a saw when I was very young – a bit dangerous looking back on it," he laughs. "My father was a great man, great, and I've always been creative and into engines and cars and rallying."
Educated at Methody but without the patience for academia, he opted for a "brilliant, fascinating" engineering apprenticeship at Mackie's instead of going to university. Then, after receiving a calling of sorts, he ran a marathon which was to change his life.
"There was a group of us and we hadn't a clue which charity we should run for," he recalls. "Somebody suggested the Seagull special needs school in Belfast. When I visited it and looked at some of the chairs the children were sitting in, I thought, 'I could make much better chairs than those'. A mother also told me how uncomfortable her child was and how she hadn't managed to find the right chair for her.
"It was a very powerful experience, a very strong intuition. I knew I would do this for the rest of my life. I connected with the children very powerfully, with the idea that I could help, I knew I could make a difference – I knew was something I wanted to do for the rest of my working life. It's brilliant to have found that, and it has been an amazing journey ever since."
The postural problems of the disabled children he met struck a chord with James, who keeps a model skeleton in one of his design offices. At 6ft 2in, his own spine is very slightly stooped at the top by Kyphosis, a progressive but not irreversible condition which propels the upper body to hunch forward. With the help of a good physiotherapist, he has managed to straighten up as much as possible, and the condition has made him hyper-alert to the need for good postural support for special needs children, whose abnormal muscle tone can lead to deformities.
Within three months of his visit to Seagull, the then qualified engineer made his first chair for children with special needs and the orders began to flow. In 1986 he rented some floor space in Kilwee Business Park in Belfast.
"It was a big step – suddenly I had to pay rent, rates, staff. I had no money, I was working 24/7 and I had no social life – my friends would complain about me not going out on a Friday night. But I was doing what I loved and I ended up in the Naidex exhibition at Alexandra Palace in 1987 with three seats and three standing frames. That was really the beginning of strong and steady growth."
By 1990, Leckey was the UK market leader in the field; by 1993 he had opened an office in Boston, USA, and was selling hundreds of products, including postural care seats as well as standing and bathing products.
But two years later, amid the fragmentation of his marriage to Sandra, the mother of his three children – Sarah (24), who works for a London digital company; Anna (20) a drama student at South Bank College, and Jack (16), who attends Inst – he was struck down with the chronic fatigue syndrome, ME.
"It was a mix of hard work and personal stress, " he admits, reluctantly. "I was going to the gym every morning and working late every night – I was burnt out. I remember one day my father coming into the office and asking me what was wrong – I was sitting there and just couldn't function. It was very confusing and a week later I had shingles all over my back. I totally lost my confidence.
"The doctor prescribed six months on a desert island but I stuck it out. I built an incredible team and got used to taking time off. I won a national car rally in 1998 and was able to function again but had lost the connection with the business. I had to get back on track."
He did so with the help of his partner Jane, "a great, great girl", who runs Cherry & Lang, their video production company which makes promotional films for Leckey LTS and its Firefly wing. Jane also runs a Bikram yoga studios at the couple's farm in Drumbeg, home to their two donkeys, three dogs and two cats – a local dog killed their chickens.
Today, Leckey employs just over 160 full-time staff, including researchers, engineers, customer service experts, physiotherapists and factory workers. With a £12m-plus turnover, the company now distributes to more than 30 countries worldwide and is growing faster than its competition.
And now fully recovered from ME and about to buy the 40,000 sq ft building next door to his HQ in Lisburn, to add to his existing four factories, the energetic Mr Leckey is planning a week-long holiday to an island off Croatia with one of his distributors, Jane and his three children.
"I work about 40 hours a week and I am the middle of the factory at times with a hammer – sometimes just to annoy them," he laughs. "You can never rest on your laurels. I have the greatest work satisfaction possible but I still have a long list of ambitions to fulfil. I want Leckey Design to continue to make a positive difference to families with disabilities and that means a whole new range of products over the next few years. He's secretive about the new inventions but lets slip that one's called 'Scoot'.
A scooter for disabled kids?
"Can't say yet! Come back in September and see."
It's a date.
- For details on the company and its work, visit www.leckey.com
Making a difference for special kids
- In addition to the Upsee harness, Leckey Design's best known products include the Squiggles Seat, Squiggles Stander and the Mygo.
- Last year the company launched the Firefly GoTo Seat, a lightweight, portable seating solution for children needing additional postural support and stability.
- Now available in the USA, Australia, Brazil and South Africa, the GoTo seat was tested on several local families before its launch and made a huge impact.
James says: "One dad told us it allowed his two-year-old child to go on a park swing for the first time; another mum used it to enable her child to sit in a shopping trolley – she was able to do her grocery shop with her child for the first time.
"It's wonderful to think that such a simple concept and product can make a profound difference. The one overriding objective with Firefly is to promote everyday family life for special kids. Same with Upsee – it has enabled disabled kids to play football with their friends for the first time ever, and to walk down the road with their mum or dad and wave to neighbours."
- The Firefly GoTo Seat has been designed in association with UK-based charity Cerebra, which is dedicated to improving the lives of children with brain-related conditions. A total of 7% of profits from every GoTo Seat sale will go to supporting Cerebra's vital work in the UK and around the world.
- for more details, visit www.fireflyfriends.com