Not all the benefits of the Wings accelerator, Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation’s (QPI) program for startups, are found in the official curriculum. For entrepreneurs used to working on their own, having the chance to meet others involved in the same journey can have benefits, especially during COVID-19. That’s true even if that connecting takes place via a Zoom call. For Erin Huitema and Behshid Behrouzi, the CEO and COO respectively of Alucia Lingerie, such a casual encounter helped them to establish a relationship with one of the leaders in their field.
The two engineering students (they graduated in 2021) founded their company as part of the Queen's Innovation Centre Summer Initiative program in 2019, with the goal, says Huitema, “to revolutionize the bra industry with our designs.”
Their intent is deeply serious. “If a woman doesn’t enjoy full mobility, she cannot put on or remove a conventional bra by herself,” Huitema says. “Currently there are no attractive bras for women with arthritis or even minor shoulder injuries that make them feel confident in what they're wearing. Accessible bras do exist, but they are geriatric and medical-looking.”
“We’re making something that’s unique on the market,” says Behrouzi (the two trade off seamlessly when speaking). “Using universal design principles, we have developed a clasp that makes it easy for users.” There are bras out there that purport to be “adaptive” in their construction, says Behrouzi, but in fact aren’t. A wearer would still need help. “We are currently in the process of applying for a patent, with the expertise and support of QPI’s Patent Team,” says Huitema.
The two learned about the Wings accelerator through the WE-CAN (Women Entrepreneurs Can) Project led by Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI). “We were using a lot of their services and attending their events,” says Huitema. “Kerry Ramsay, the Project Manager, suggested we join the Wings program.” They weren’t strictly an early-stage startup, but she suggested they could still benefit from it.
“The program was absolutely incredible,” says Huitema. “It was so, so beneficial, and the people who run it were lovely. COVID’s been difficult for a lot of businesses, including our own…it’s been hard to stay motivated. The program really centred us over the summer [Wings ran from early June to late July] and gave us a nice blueprint to progress.” “We definitely saw productivity spikes after every session,” says Behrouzi, “whether it was just Erin and me discussing ideas we had come up with during the sessions or networking with people we had met through the program and leads they had given us.”
One particular lead, from a fellow Wings participant, has already proven particularly beneficial. Hearing about Alucia Lingerie’s product, Scott Selbie, the CEO at Theia Markerless, offered to help. “He introduced us to Julie Steele,” says Behrouzi. Julia is a professor emerita at the University of Woolongong in New South Wales, Australia and founder and former director of the Biomechanics Institute there (home to Breast Research Australia). Steele has the distinction of inventing the world’s first bionic bra, which can increase or decrease support as needed. “He [Selbie] heard about our mission and thought it strongly aligned with her research,” says Huitema. Steele now serves as a mentor to the two young women. Selbie “also really highly recommended that we speak to Veterans Canada for funding because our bra would be beneficial for amputees as well,” says Behrouzi. Although Theia Markerless, like the other Wings participants, was involved in a very different business, they were still able to connect: “Regardless of the industry you’re in, it’s all the same process,” she says.
Come early 2022, Alucia Lingerie plan on started their kickstarter round of fund raising. “We’ve done a lot of testing, a lot of validating, and we are now at the stage of getting the money and actually producing the product,” says Huitema.
“But we will definitely be tapping into the Queen’s innovation community in future,” she says. “It’s been remarkable for us so far.”