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Mac Planet: ShapeDad

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ShapeDad Love Stands. Photo / Supplied
ShapeDad Love Stands. Photo / Supplied

Ivo Beckers is a Dutchman who makes assistive devices for iPads, a niche market he has successfully developed from his garage in the town of Breda, and with the help of his partner and their children.

He describes himself as a 'computer science guy' who worked for 20 years as a software developer for companies like Shell, and for ABN Amro and other banks.

From 2007, the recession forced large organisations to reorganise, cut budgets and to move to preferred suppliers, but by then Ivo had discovered the benefits of working from home.

Ivo developed some event management software himself and licensed it to some large companies. In 2010, though, he had a major switch. "We had the kids in after-school care that they didn't like, so I decided to make some time for them on that afternoon, as long as we could create some things together."

They designed toys and jewellery and had them 3D printed by a Dutch company you upload designs to. Two weeks later, the product arrives in the mail.

"But then the iPad came along, and my kids love drawing, but we found the styli available not, shall we say, elegant enough. They were mostly made of rubber or foam.

"So we started making our own, and at the same time I discovered Etsy." This American web venture that sells a very wide range of well-made products created by amateur, semi-professional and professional craftspeople.

"It was easy to set up a shop in Etsy, a nice low-profile platform, and I put some things in there and they just took off."

All the manufacturing is done at home. The kids (now nine and twelve) suggest things and test, Ivo's wife machines the little sleeves of conductive material, and Ivo designs and develops the hard materials.

The 3D printing doesn't work for this. "The materials it can print are not really suitable for day to day use. So what we do now is get aluminium, copper and other types of material and assemble it together ourselves."

For two years already this has been a full-time living. What he does is enable people with various mobility/disability issues to use iPads the same as anyone else. The first product was a stylus for drawing, used by people who wanted to draw with more finesse, like painters and comic, but since all his styli were able to be disassembled, "All of a sudden, I started to receive pictures from people who had handicaps - they could not use their hands, for example. They still wanted to use iPads because, compared to computers, they were cheap. They are especially cheap compared to specialist assistive computer devices."

They were buying Ivo's styli online, which were made from bamboo or adapted from calligraphic pens tipped with a little sleeve made from a specialists nylon/cotton fabric interwoven with silver thread. But then they were taking them apart and attaching them to their headsets, mouse-sticks and other pointing devices and using them with standard iPads.

"That's how I went into a kind of niche market, in servicing those people directly. And that is now my core business. And it's a very fulfilling audience."

A shop in Italy and another in the UK stocks his hardware, but Etsy is still the main sales channel.

As far as government agencies, there's little support, perhaps due to medical insurance provisions, but Ivo works a lot with therapists around the globe, plus several large hospitals. Between them and the feedback from clients, it's almost like agile software development: the feedback leads to Ivo refining and developing his products to do more, be more usable and to be more useful.

Something Ivo discovered is that if there was at least six-inches of metal strip (copper, for example) leading to the tip of conductive material, you can sleeve the copper in a non-conductive material (plastic or bamboo, for example) and it still carries enough charge for touchscreens.

His first fully-assisstive product was prompted by a schoolteacher in England. Her young son was finding it difficult to manipulate a stylus or his fingers, so she took a t-shaped cork-screw and attached a ShapeDad stylus to it. Her son discovered he could use this easily by comparison, holding it in his fist with the stylus projecting between the fingers. This was communicated to Ivo, so he developed a 'proper' version. Its light and strong, and easy to use in a relaxed fist, so it also suits those with arthritis.

A second version will appear soon, with a handle drilled in several places so you can customise the angle that the stylus protrudes from.

A version for kids is made from a chewy plastic rod, itself an aid for children with chewing problems. With the sock added, it's a soft, light, grippy kids' iPad stylus. The company that makes the chew-aid was most happy to supply them to ShapeDad at distributor pricing so he could modify them.

A new device is a handheld with a stiff, yet flexible stylus. It's 30 centimetres long, actually a flexible brass rod covered in soft fabric. This way, people can bend it into the shape that suits them most.

With handhelds, of course, some people buy two - one in each hand means faster typing.

A different device is a 'mouth stick', a long, strong yet light stylus with a medical plastic y-shaped tang on one end made by a medical instrument specialist in the Netherlands. That goes in the mouth, for those who use their heads as device controllers. Another version uses a snorkel mouthpiece, which some people prefer: it's more flexible and it's 'breathe-through'. The conductive part of the stylus does not need to be in contact with your body, thanks to the 'six-inch' principle.

An advantage to the business model is that any one part can be replaced - people often order the mouth stick with a spare mouth piece anyway.

A development of this is slim stainless steel extendable stylus. It takes a stronger push to telescope it in; it won't randomly resize while you are working against a touchscreen.
In the ShapeDad promotional material, I noticed an original iPad stand. It turns out this is another ShapeDad product called the iPad Love stand: basically, a plastic collar with a slot to hold the iPad at a working angle. It's light, stable, simple and very effective, with the only problem being its shape making it hard to ship. "We always use A-grade material."

You can see all these products in the Etsy shop.

Ivo may have started because of the iPad, but his inventions work with all touchscreens. A friend in the US handles US and Canadian enquiries and distribution with a three-day shipping service from ShapeDad stock sent twice a month; the rest of the world is handled from Breda, with the UK, Australia and New Zealand figuring strongly.

"The feedback from happy clients is very rewarding for me - but especially it's rewarding to hear from the parents of kids who can suddenly use iPads and so forth."

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