'A design for life' Pioneering Irish designer Noel Joyce on innovation, disability, the challenge of opportunity and the joy of cycling
James Dyson award-winner Noel Joyce is a serial entrepreneur with a successful appearance as a competitor on Ireland’s Dragons Den. A problem-solver and maker at heart, he enjoys bringing new value to people’s lives through design.
Throughout his career, he has significantly contributed to the design community in Ireland, including establishing the designhub collaborative for young Irish designers. As part of his former role at HAX, he also helped hundreds of start-ups from all over the globe bring to life over 250 hardware start-up products and understand how they could bring a start-up mindset to design for acceleration.
His experience of having lived life as an able-bodied individual and with a disability, coupled with his cultural insight from having worked with people from all walks of life, gives him a unique perspective on the design development of new ideas. Now an international lecturer at NYU Shangai, he is a fervent Disability Advocate.
Noel talks to Kernan Andrews about his career journey, his latest Adaptive Mountain Bike project, designing and his take on designing for Disability.
“I’M ONE of those people that doesn’t worry about taking risks, giving something a shot and seeing what happens. The very least you get from it is experience.”
Noel Joyce is certainly a rare breed. A former soldier and Dragons’ Den contestant, he is widely recognised as an innovative designer, disability awareness activist, and keen user of adaptive mountain bikes who never stops innovating.
These qualities - are now coming together in his latest project, perhaps the Irishman’s most ambitious to date - a next-gen adaptive mountain bike, which is affordable and can be built by anyone, anywhere in the world.
Attendees of the Design Leaders Conference - led by Design Skillnet - at the Light House Cinema in Dublin on January 26, are likely to get a chance to see a prototype of this groundbreaking idea to allow people with disabilities to cycle.
An Irishman abroad
Being an Irishman living and working abroad is not unusual but not every Irish person has enjoyed quite the range of business and academic roles Noel has. The Offaly native is currently based in New York, where he is a Lecturer at the New York University Shanghai (“Because of Covid I didn’t get to Shanghai, that’s how I ended up in New York for this semester, but hopefully I’ll get to Shanghai next fall,” he says).
Before that, he spent considerable time in Shenzhen, China - “About eight months out of every year for eight years” - working on projects with HAX, the leading hard tech start-up accelerator.
It was Noel’s Dragons’ Den appearance which led him to work with the company.
“It stemmed from being involved with Sean O’Sullivan,” says Noel. “He was one of the Dragons on Dragon’s Den. That’s how I ended up in Shenzhen. I must have worked with between 2-300 start-ups in that duration, helping them develop their ideas.”
HAX was developed by Sean O’Sullivan and Cyril Ebersweiler. The world's first and most active programme focused on hard tech startups, its accelerator programmes are designed to help start-ups move from early-stage prototypes and concepts to fundraising and eventually full realisation.
“The purpose,” says Noel, “is to take these ideas and technologies that never existed before, or didn’t exist in the form they were presented and turn them into people- facing products and ideas that people could understand and that could be deployed.
“Sometimes you are developing something that never existed before, but you are also defining a category as well. That is what we were doing at HAX, defining a category, defining technologies, ways things are going to be done as much as helping these start-ups, closing the gap between technology and its customer-facing element.” One of our main roles was to mitigate the risk that the technology won’t be viable as much as possible through the process of learning.
Noel reckons that if “you named any product, in any industry, I probably have designed several products in that industry while I was in HAX”. It does not come across as a boast, more like a description of how being in HAX both challenged and enabled Noel’s creativity to operate at the highest level.
“There is a sizable gap between what technology is and what a human can understand in relation to what it is,” Noel reflects. An example is Sous Vide, a cooking technology used by many restaurants. It uses immersion circulation to cook food at a lower temperature for a longer period of time while the food is vacuum sealed in a bag. HAX was approached by a company which had developed a technology that would make Sous Vide usable and suitable for the home. However, the device presented to HAX “looked scary, like something people couldn’t use,” says Noel.
Noel took that idea and remodelled it.
“I looked at it from the perspective of what people already had in their home, like taps and pots,” he says, “and decided to design this product around things people already knew, therefore breaking down the barriers of understanding how to use this new technology for cooking.”
The result? “That company went on to have a successful Kickstarter campaign and became the form factor. Every product being designed for Sous Vide now looks exactly like that form factor and is that shape.”
‘I want to ride my bicycle’
In 2006, Noel had a devastating accident while mountain biking, resulting in him being confined to a wheelchair. Understandably, it took another 15 years before he could even think about cycling again. “I started cycling around near my home,” he says. “I had a regular adaptive bike. It has 26” mountain bike wheels, which would be older style.”
A neighbour, who is also a mountain bike enthusiast, encouraged Noel to try some of the mountain bike trails on the Sliabh Blooms. Noel did and as soon as “we got down the trail and the bug bit again. It was like ‘This is amazing. I can’t believe I can do this again.’”
The experience reignited Noel’s cycling passion and he began hitting the adventure trails regularly. However, the standard adaptive bike he had was unable to cope with the rougher terrain and would often break down. “The bike was not able to keep up with my developing capabilities,” says Noel. “That’s when it was time to think about a new bike.”
Noel reached out to companies which were developing adaptive bikes, saying that as someone who was both an industrial designer and a person with a physical disability, that he would like to be involved. Spanish company, Carbon Master, proved willing to “develop a bike around the ideas I had”and together they created the world’s first full-suspension, carbon-fibre, adaptive mountain bike.
“It was hilariously expensive,” says Noel, “but it was the start of something new and I funded this first version myself. It was a research project for me.”
That bike was “a very advanced prototype” rather than a finished product but riding it showed where it had potential and its limits. “I went out on it one day and ended up breaking things,” says Noel.
When Noel asked for new parts to repair the bike, he was informed they would cost €500 with a 6-8 week waiting time. This unacceptable situation for Noel - and indeed for any disabled sportsperson (“That’s two months of my life waiting for parts that are going to cost me an enormous amount of money. It’s more difficult for people with disabilities. You have less time to enjoy these kinds of things because of deterioration in your body”) - was also a spur to his creativity and an ambitious new design project.
Thor’s Hammer and an open-source idea
Noel got to work designing an adaptive mountain bike which would have standardised parts. Significantly, he opened sourced the design, thereby allowing anyone to get hold of the files and “build a part on demand when they need it”.
“Now we have what we call a ‘mule’, which is the basic geometry set-up and layout of the bike,” says Noel. “We’ve named it Project Mjölnir, after Thor’s hammer, which is about breaking down barriers and a bit of a nod to the video game Halo, where the Spartan armour is Mjölnir class armour as well!
“The bike is now at a stage where it has all these components which I’m going to assemble when I get home to Ireland next week and hopefully have them on display at the Design Leaders Conference.”
Noel describes the ‘mule’ as a “test platform” and a “modular platform” that can be adapted for an individual’s particular needs.
“You can start with a very basic bike but you can get to a very complex, more capable machine through upgrades,” he says. “That has a lot of value, as a lot of people starting out don’t have the money to spend on a twenty grand bike. There are lots of adaptive bikes, but the cheapest you are going to get is €6-7,000. We’re trying to get the bike under €2,000 so people can upgrade from there.”
This bike is another example of Noel’s innovation and pioneering creativity. “This idea of an open-source bike has never existed before. No one has turned around and said, ‘I’m going to leave the files out there for anyone to use’.” Work on the bike will take place at New York University in the New Year, with the idea that by May there will be four units, with one located in New York, another in Abu Dhabi, a third in Shanghai, and another in Ireland.
“All those files that we’ve developed the bike around,” says Noel, “we know that anyone in any of those places will be able to build a bike from them. That way, we open up this possibility and by next May people can be using them.”
In 2022, Noel competed in the Coillte Biking Blitz in Laois and Offaly, alongside riders of two-wheeled mountain bikes.
“Doing the thing that caused the accident is scary - but that’s the point of it,” he says. “When I’m out on the hills on the bike, I’m doing something a lot of able bodied people won’t even do, or try. For the time I’m there, the disability disappears. You don’t have the choice but to concentrate on what you are doing. You’re completely alive as that’s all that matters.
“That is behind the open source project, to get more people doing that - not that I’m completely altruistic. For me, the more people we get building bikes and playing around with them, the faster the technology will evolve, the cheaper and more accessible it gets for everybody, me included.”
The challenges for start-ups
As an innovative designer and someone who has worked with start-ups - advising, supporting, and where needs are, challenging them to improve their ideas - Noel is in a strong position to know the difficulties and challenges start-ups often face.
“The big thing with start-ups, when they develop ideas or technologies, is the assumption that everyone else should understand,” says Noel, “and that the technology is really clever. People overdo the technology side of things from an explanation perspective and don’t realise that people don’t care.”
“The object you are designing is a conduit to an experience, rather than being the experience itself. It was about helping start-ups - understand that we need to get the technology out of the way in order to let the experience happen. That was very difficult, as they find it very hard to bypass their need to explain the technology.”
When evaluating which start-up projects had the best chance of succeeding, Noel came to that question from an unusual perspective - he wanted to hear about failure even more than success.
“It’s always a lottery. You never know what is going to be a hit or a miss,” he says. “A lot of people will tell you about the great things they have done but they won’t talk about the failures and the difficulties. When you get to those, you start to really understand what people have come through to get to the point they are at now.
“I’m interested in what it took to get to that point. All the tough stuff you did tells me what you are going to be capable of doing in the future. A lot of people hide that as they perceive it as failure, which it is but they don’t realise it’s a massive amount of learning, which it is.”
Design and Disability
In the years following his graduation from IT Carlow, Noel found it “difficult to get work in design”. Among the reasons was his disability. This, along with other factors, led Noel and some friends to form designhub to convince people of the value of design, which proved to be “a great launch pad, it helped a lot of us develop our careers.”
One of the triumphs was the magnetic stylus developed by Noel and Andy Shaw. “We developed the first magnetic stylus for the iPad,” he says. “Any stylus you see that has a magnetic element that sticks onto something is a feature we designed and developed. We bootstrapped that company from €8,000 of our own money to €1 million in sales.”
Such experiences have made Noel a passionate advocate for design, industry and society becoming more disabled-friendly and disabled-conscious.
“Disability is underserved across all organisational structures because people are afraid to engage,” he says. “Race equity, sexual orientation, or religion, all of those parts of inclusivity have fewer barriers, whereas disability becomes about changing your building, allowing people to work remotely, having technologies that enable people with disabilities to work.
“There is a lot of talk about inclusivity but not a lot of lightning, as in actual action, things happening,” says Noel. “There is a lot of fear out there. I can’t tell you about the amount of times I have reached out to organisations, saying, ‘I’m a disabled person who is also an industrial designer, if you need any input, I would be happy to help. I don’t want anything for it, I just want to be involved, as I believe it’s important'. I think people are worried that now they have to commit and now something must be done.
“I understand that, that’s why I will always be reaching out. I’m not going to get annoyed about it, I’d rather extend the opportunity of working with people with disabilities, like myself and if people want to do it they want to do it and if they don’t, ultimately it will be a loss.”
Disability as part of the human condition
A loss indeed, for as Noel points out, “we all live with a disability at some point”.
“Right now, 15% of the planet’s population live with a disability,” he says, “and it is a group you can instantly become part of, anytime. You can walk out in front of a car and now you are part of this group.
“The biggest part of that minority group is the elderly. Just by living long enough you will become disabled, things close in on you, it gets a bit more difficult. Another fact to consider is that we are never at optimal capability for the entirety of our existence. If you break a leg, you are disabled or no longer functioning at your optimal as an individual because you're caring for someone else - by pushing a stroller around for example, you are disabled to some degree.
“All those things contribute to suboptimal existence as an able-bodied person. Disability also affects you on an emotional level and then it becomes a mental issue as much as a physical disability impediment. That is why we need to look at disability as a core part of the human condition. When we think about it from that perspective, we might think about design differently and where we no longer think about inclusive design. It should be just a design that we can use for the entirety of our lives.”
The failure to build disability awareness into design is also, as Noel points out, a lack of social awareness and responsibility and a severely missed commercial opportunity.
“There is going to have to be innovation in this space,” he says. “This is part of the human condition. We will all get old and it is a market opportunity that will always exist, so starting to think about it from the perspective of ‘There is money being left on the table’ because you are not considering this means you need to examine it.
“I always point to Nike’s Flyease shoe developed over the last couple of years for a guy who had difficulty putting his shoes on with his hands. They designed this shoe so you don’t need your hands to do it. That became so successful that people who need the shoe can’t get hold of them. Nike didn’t do it as they were being entirely altruistic, they found something that could sell really well and on top of that, they have developed the way we will put shoes on when we are 80 or 90.
“If you are not thinking that way about leveraging disability as an opportunity, then you are at a loss, you don’t realise what you are missing. It might be a massive amount of work to be done but it’s also a massive opportunity to be had. How do you manage that is the next question.”
It is here that designers with disabilities can play an especially vital role, as Noel believes designers with disabilities have “visionary superpowers” and can “see the future”.
“Before I go to bed, I will make sure I have everything ready to go in the morning, as I can’t tackle the risk of being late,” says Noel. “I have to consider that the subways won’t work, that I’ll get a puncture on my wheelchair, all these different scenarios you don’t have to think about as an able-bodied person. These are things people with disabilities have to think about.
“So I give myself an extra hour every time I go anywhere in order for all of those things to play out. When a person with a disability has to live like that all the time, every single thing is planned with 20 different scenarios in advance. You are trying to tell the future all the time, telling what will go wrong before it goes wrong. It becomes your sixth sense, your superpower.
“When I face the challenge of a project, I’m thinking about 10 steps down the line than the thing I’m looking at directly in front of me. I’m going ‘What are all the scenarios that can play out?’ People with disabilities just naturally are problem solvers as that is their entire existence. Their natural pre-empting mechanism ability kicks in like muscle memory and they look at things and go, ‘I’m able to see how this plays out before you can even think about what goes wrong’.” When you are applying that to a problem-solving activity such as design, you are de-risking a huge amount of these situations.
‘Design the future together. Be part of the conversation’
The Design Leaders Conference takes place on Thursday, January 26 in the Light House Cinema, Smithfield, Dublin.
For more information see www.designleadersconference.com.