“It started off, as all good things do, at an Indian wedding…”
Chennai-based Vidhan Bhaiya (23) was inspired to launch Dr Brinsley, a homegrown venture manufacturing diabetic footwear, after he sensed his favourite uncle’s discomfort on being photographed at a family event in 2016. The ‘style icon of the family’ had recently been diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy, and didn’t want to be pictured in his bulky shoes, Vidhan recalls.
While his uncle was his first customer, Vidhan’s brainchild has been associated with as many as 85 hospitals across the country, and impacted the lives of around a thousand diabetics, he says.
As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), India has an estimated 8.7 per cent diabetic population in the age group of 20-70 years, with around 77 million Indians diagnosed with diabetes. Besides being at risk of heart attacks, strokes and kidney failures, patients may also experience muscle and joint pain, as well as stiffness and loss of sensation in their limbs, and may ultimately require amputation.
“Every twenty seconds, a foot is amputated due to diabetes across the world. About half of these cases can be prevented if patients wear appropriate footwear. The concept isn’t new at all, but adherence is low because of the way most diabetic shoes look. I began my company with an idea to innovate at a component-level and combine medical utility with style,” Vidhan tells The Better India.
‘The Dr Brinsley advantage’
“Our footwear was created keeping four fundamental design goals in mind — even distribution of plantar pressure, reducing friction and shear stress, preventing external shocks, and accommodating deformities due to diabetes,” explains Vidhan.
The shoes, which feature components such as an anti-sweat leather lining and a soft memory foam footbed, are priced between Rs 999 and Rs 3,999. About 500 pairs of Dr Brinsley shoes are replenished every 25 days or so, ordered primarily by young professionals for their middle-aged and elderly family members. Vidhan says the company works with small manufacturing vendors based in Karnataka, whose business took a hit during the pandemic.
In 2017, while pursuing an undergraduate scholarship programme in chemical engineering at Northeastern University, Boston, Vidhan applied for the Scholars Independent Research Fellowship, a university initiative to support students pursuing independent research and creative endeavours over the summer.
In need of crucial mentoring, Vidhan approached two faculty members — Dr Mark Sivac, considered an expert in prototyping, who helped him develop a product focused on the user, and Dr Marc Meyer, head of entrepreneurship at the university, who helped him conceptualise Dr Brinsley shoes as a company.
Vidhan, who was awarded a grant of 5,000 USD, headed to India, and spent a few weeks interacting with about 200 stakeholders, including 40-odd diabetologists and patients. Once he attained an empathic understanding of the issues at hand, he then visited Civitanova Marche, a town in Italy, to study the shoe-manufacturing industry.
“I stumbled upon a small, family-run enterprise that had been in the business of diabetic footwear for over 40 years. It was there that I learnt how design goals could be translated into a feasible product. They only knew Italian and I didn’t speak any; we communicated through sign language and with the help of passers-by,” he recalls.
Alongside studies, he constantly worked on enhancing design.
Back to India for another month to work on the initial prototypes, which he admits had more fashion than function, summer was over and Vidhan returned to university.
“Some of the largest shoe-manufacturing companies are headquartered in Boston. Another helpful part about living at Northeastern was that it was a stone’s throw from phenomenal medical institutions such as Joslin Diabetes Center, Boston Medical Center, and Harvard Medical School. I took my shoe models to those in the industry, tested water resistance and asked people to wear them — all while gathering feedback and constantly working on enhancing design, alongside studies,” he says.
The next summer, Vidhan was awarded the Sherman Centre Entrepreneurship Engineering Co-op, a fellowship that allowed him to take eight months off school and solely focus on his venture.
“Between these two summers, I also worked as an investment associate at Pillar Venture Capital and dealt with at least four pitches per day. The experience helped me understand the length and breadth of startups and the ‘wow factor’ that helps set an entrepreneur apart,” he says.
‘When you’re an entrepreneur, 100 things go wrong…’
Vidhyan formally launched Dr Brinsley in February 2019. “The first four months were an absolute trainwreck in terms of hiring, delayed shipments and payments. I didn’t anticipate how tedious the manufacturing process would be and dealt with a lot of frustration. I could come back with renewed vigour only once I realised that the journey so far had been fun and the results will come later,” he says.
The company received its first big break in July, when Vidhan wrote to a doctor from a prominent hospital in Hyderabad, one he’d previously met at Northeastern. “She wrote back immediately and arranged for us to meet the following day. The hospital confirmed an order for their website and that helped popularise our product,” he says. “As an entrepreneur, 99 of the 100 things you do go wrong, but the one does go right. Then a second thing does, and so on and so forth, and that needs to be at the centre of your attention.”
How the pandemic brought on a shift in business
It was only during the pandemic that the company began prioritising individual sales, Vidhan says. “There were always issues in terms of the middlemen involved in hospital sales, but COVID-19 put a full stop to us servicing those relationships altogether. I couldn’t pitch my idea to doctors in person anymore and realised it would be much easier to directly access our customers. I partnered with online retailers and the reach has been good. We’ve had plenty of inbound sales and this approach leaves me with more time to curate content on creating awareness,” he says.
Vidhan, who presently lives with his parents, is set to pursue an MBA from Harvard, most likely in 2023. “I received an acceptance letter in July this year, but the admission is applicable for four years (2023-2026) which allows me the professional freedom to continue focusing on Dr Brinsley’s development. The idea is to leave the company when it can run itself; I don’t want to be figuring out business over the phone,” he laughs.
The 23-year-old also helps out C&E Limited, his family’s leather and speciality chemical manufacturing business. Elucidating on his shoe brand’s name, he shares, “Brinsley comes from ‘Richard Brinsley’, a shoe company that my family began some fourteen years ago. The idea was to promote European fashion among Indian customers, without the exorbitant prices. Unfortunately, our manufacturing unit burned down in 2010 and we lost all our machinery and inventory. I included the doctor bit because it’s meant for customers with medical needs.”
As far as what’s next on the horizon, he says, “We’re pursuing research in two key areas — smart insoles that not only prevent loss of sensation in feet, but also help in regaining it, and creating customised footwear for patients who are at risk of amputation or have already undergone it, and those dealing with other foot disorders.”
Dr Brinsley shoes are available for purchase on the company’s website and online retailers such as Amazon, Flipkart and Seniority. The brand has also been approved by Apollo Sugar clinics, Netmeds, 1mg and BeatMySugar.
To place orders or for more information, you can visit Dr Brinsley’s website.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)