Sarah Tress is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford studying for the MPhil in Development Studies. While in her undergraduate studies in Mechanical Engineering at MIT, she founded Loop Cushion which is developing low-cost inflatable wheelchair seat cushions from bicycle inner tubes for use in low-resource contexts. She is now the Executive Director at Loop Cushion, a nonprofit which currently has a team of three people, all MIT graduates. Loop has done small pilot tests in Indonesia and is currently working to scale manufacturing methods and find partnerships in new regions.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I did my undergraduate studies in Mechanical Engineering and am now studying Development studies here at Oxford, which has been a challenge to say the least. There was never a point in which I decided to become an entrepreneur. During my second year of undergraduate studies, I reached out to an NGO to find a project I could work on. By what some may call misfortune, but what I would call serendipity, the lack of funding available for the project forced me to pursue alternative funding sources for the project and take it into my own hands. A year later, I had a working prototype and had suddenly become an entrepreneur of sorts.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me, entrepreneurship is being an independently minded go-getter. I think the commonly understood definition of an entrepreneur being a person who comes up with a genius invention and becomes rich and famous is too narrow of a definition. I think entrepreneurs exist in mindset, regardless of the existence of their own ‘successful’ enterprise. An entrepreneur is somebody who is willing to take a step into the unknown and try something that hasn’t been done before or something they have a passion for.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
The wheelchair industry is a relatively small field, especially when you consider those making wheelchair products for low-resource contexts. In the beginning stages, I was motivated to pursue the idea because of the interest that the professionals in the field had in the project. It was something that many in the industry had wanted to make for a while, but just never happened. I became motivated to actually create a working prototype after traveling to Indonesia to interview wheelchair users. One of the people I interviewed told me it was her dream to have the cushion I wanted to develop, which gave me the push to make the project real.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Ability to self lead (or at least the capacity to learn how) – Especially in the beginning stages of pursuing an idea, there are many points in which there is no path paved for you. To be an entrepreneur, you need to deal with many points in which you have no clue what to do or how to do it. It takes problem solving skills, but more importantly an ability to lead oneself to be able to continue moving forward with an idea.
Creativity – If you are an entrepreneur, you are going to need the ability to think outside of the box. If you are pursuing a completely new idea, you will need to be creative to figure out what nobody else has figured out before.
Grit – Being an entrepreneur comes with many high points, but many more low points. You need to have grit, or resilience, to be able to learn and bounce back from those lows and keep going.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I enjoy the freedom to work on what I care about and be able to learn in a unique environment. Through working on Loop I have learned so much, not just about the space I’m working in but about myself. Being an entrepreneur has pushed me to develop personally in more ways than I can recount.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Whirlwind Wheelchairs, created by Ralf Hotchkiss, is certainly an inspiration within my field. They have created a gold standard for low-cost high-quality wheelchair products for low-resource contexts. We aspire to meet the quality and respect they have within the field.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Luckily, I have already gotten the chance to meet with Ralf Hotchkiss a few times, though he is certainly a busy MacArthur Fellowship recipient. If I were to get the chance to speak to him in person sometime soon (very unlikely given the pandemic), I would love to show him our most recent prototype and receive his advice. I still have the handwritten notes he gave me when I initially met with him to review earlier prototypes. He has been indispensably helpful for our initial development.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
We tested our cushion to ISO standards to compare it to other cushions in the field. When it performed comparably in many aspects to the top of the line air cushions we were trying to match, I knew we had something special that could be really useful to those who need it the most.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?Honestly there are too many to recount here. One of the biggest lessons we have learned as a team, and are still working through, is that we simply don’t have the skills or time to do everything ourselves. Especially since we all come from engineering backgrounds, we have more blind spots than we can count. We are slowly learning to figure out what we are actually best at and figuring out how to delegate or remove tasks that we are not suited for.
How have you funded your ideas?
We have mostly depended upon funding sources and competitions available through MIT while we were students there. We were very lucky to have a very supportive entrepreneurship community at MIT. We are now working through incorporating as a 501(c)(3) non profit in the US so that we can raise funds through donations and grants.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
So far, there haven’t been any.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I have not actively pursued Loop for much time in Oxford, and all of the time that I have has been during the pandemic. Not to only pick out the negative, but we are really struggling with the lack of access to maker spaces and workshops in Oxford. At MIT, we were well connected to many shops we could prototype in, but these resources sadly just don’t exist in Oxford. If I had more time here, I would have loved to try to find people to start a workshop with here in Oxford!
Any last words of advice?
If you want to pursue an idea and know it will make at least one person’s life better, go ahead and try it! You will never know how much impact it could have until you try.