Entrepreneur’s wand invention offers freedom
After a back injury, Holland native devises tool to help limited-mobility individuals gain independence.
A car crash in 2006 left Deb Tacoma housebound with a broken back, dependent on others to help her with personal hygiene while she remained immobile in a turtle shell brace.
Tacoma tried to find a product on the market that would help her clean hard-to-reach places, such as her feet, back and bottom, but occupational therapists’ suggestions and her research yielded no results that would work for an obese person, which she was at the time.
She decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I started thinking about what it would take to make something, and I started doodling it on a napkin, and here we are, 12 years later,” Tacoma said.
In 2007, Tacoma founded Freedom Creators Inc., maker of the FreedomWand, a personal hygiene tool that helps people take care of toileting, bathing, shaving and applying ointment when they struggle with limited range of motion due to stature, spinal and back injuries, arthritis, carpal tunnel, stroke or obesity.
To get started, Tacoma went to a friend from church, Ken Assink, who is an entrepreneur and an inventor.
“He said, ‘Well, that’s a good idea. Did you do your market research?’ And I said, ‘What’s market research?’” Tacoma said, chuckling at the memory.
After determining there were no similar products on the market to what she had in mind, Tacoma reached out to Kendall College of Art and Design, and a student at the time, Ross Hirdis, created a 3D printed prototype of her idea.
Assink also recommended Tacoma go to Holland-based injection molding company Ess Tec Inc., owned at the time by the late Larry Essenburg and now owned by his wife, Connie Essenburg. Tacoma connected with Essenburg and Jim Davis, then vice president, about whether they could help produce her idea.
From there, she was able to secure a patent with help from one of Essenburg’s attorneys, and Ess Tec began producing the FreedomWand for her.
The lightweight wand has a gripping function at the end of a long, curved head that users can load with a loofah, razor, toilet tissue or sponge, then securely lock into place for use.
The original master kit wand has one extension and reaches up to 20 inches.
With the recent development of a compact kit and an ultimate kit, the FreedomWand can be as short as 7 inches or as long as 30 inches, depending on the type of kit or number of extensions purchased. Kits range from $49.99 for the compact model up to $75.49 for the ultimate kit.
Freedom Creators also sells neoprene straps to add to the handle of the wand for those who have small hands or limited hand strength and are worried about dropping the tool.
The company also sells washable cotton carry bags for traveling with the wand.
Tacoma said the smallest user she knows of was a 3½-year-old who used it to help extend her reach so she could be independent while at school, and her largest customer was over 700 pounds.
Although the wand is not dishwasher safe, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital helped her with the design so it would be easy to clean after disassembly, Tacoma said.
The FreedomWand still is manufactured in Holland at Ess Tec.
Currently, the product is available at freedomwand.com, Amazon, in person at CareLinc and Airway Oxygen, and via distributors in Canada, Australia and Europe.
Tacoma gives credit to Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) and Huntington Bank for providing the support and funding it took to keep her business alive and growing despite the hurdles of entrepreneurship.
With help from those organizations and Tacoma’s team of five part-time employees, Freedom Creators doubled its sales during the first six months of 2019 compared to the same period the prior year and is now averaging sales of about 550 FreedomWand units per month.
Tacoma said her goal is to grow the company in value over the course of the next five years so as to attract a good buyer and transition into retirement.
Owning a business is “not for the faint of heart,” she said — but it also is a huge dream come true when she reflects on how far she has come.
“I've grown tremendously from it,” she said. “I developed this to help people. I never thought in my wildest dreams that (I’d be) shipping to foreign countries. It’s been a roller coaster.”