Kelly Twichel began thinking about helping people when her mom had a stroke when she was 12 years old. She watched her mom go through different therapies and noticed the power of people coming together to help. It was a big reason for her going into health care, and she chose occupational therapy because she would get to connect with people closely.
She graduated with her occupational therapy degree and license. But as an entrepreneur, she feels she can have a much wider impact.
“As an OT clinician working in a facility, I maybe could serve 10 patients a day,” she said. “But as an entrepreneur and as an inventor running Access Trax, I can serve potentially millions of people over my lifetime.”
Her solution, developed while she was a graduate student at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in San Marcos, California, are mats that help people with wheelchairs cross the sand. Her professor, a surfer, had posed a challenge: how to get disabled surfers to the waves.
The first time Twichel and her grad school project partner Eric Packard brought the 10×4 mesh mat prototypes to a surf competition in Ocean Beach, they were astonished by the reactions of the surfers. Usually, they reached the ocean by being carried – a dehumanizing process.
“They told us that day, we need more of this,” she said. “One of the surfers that day told us with a total straight face, he said, ‘this is the first time in over 10 years that I’ve been able to get down to the water and across the sand in my wheelchair.’”
That was in 2016. Now, Twichel has built a company out of that prototype, Access Trax (Packard has since dropped back to a silent partner, she said). She’s raised more than $75,000 in equity-free funding — including a $50,000 grant from the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest – and brought in more than $100,000 in revenue last year.
The mats, which are no longer made of mesh, are now 3 foot by 3 foot and cost $73 for each block (they can also be rented). Customers must order at least five of the connectable blocks to make a viable pathway, which is then rebuilt to travel the entire way across the sand, she said. The blocks fold into an accordion, which makes them easy to carry. The product is manufactured in San Diego by companies including ePlastics and MGM Plastics and Twichel finishes assembly herself, she said.
There are competitors, and some public beaches have started installing large versions. But these mats typically cost customers more than $1,000 per 30 foot section and are difficult to move around, Twichel said.
The company has gone through five business accelerators, she said, and she was just accepted into her sixth – a San Diego program called MetroConnect that helps businesses scale global sales. She recently hired one part-time employee – her husband, Jeffrey Bruder. He’s been extremely supportive as she grew the business, which means the world to her.
“It’s not easy to be a partner to somebody who is a startup entrepreneur,” she said, tearing up. “We’re busy, we’re stressed out, we’re excited. So, having his support has been so incredibly impactful because it’s a lot to ask of somebody to sometimes give up nights and weekends and visiting family in order to focus on the business.”
Her long term goal — her “business Northstar” – is to be a partner, sponsor or involved in some way with the 2028 paralympics in Los Angeles, she said. She’s currently reaching out to connections to get involved now.
“It’s been a really challenging journey being a solo entrepreneur,” she said. “But like I said, it takes a village. And I certainly have tapped into a lot of different villages along the way.”
- Find your tribe. Whether that’s a social media group of entrepreneurs or connecting with innovators through an accelerator, don’t go through the process alone, she said.
- Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. She points to a pitch competition she entered in 2019 without any intention of winning so she could practice. “So that the next time I did it, and the next time and the next time, I would feel even more comfortable,” she said.
- Find a mission you’re passionate about. If you do, it will help you ride out the highs and the lows.
This story has been updated to reflect that only the prototype mats were made from mesh.