“I would never have thought I’d be working for a prosthetic company,” laughs Nicole Brennan. A congenital right arm amputee, she swore off artificial limbs in her early teens after a childhood full of unsatisfying experiences. Conventional devices felt physically uncomfortable and aesthetically unnatural, heightening Brennan’s self-consciousness about her limb difference. She went to great lengths to disguise it, carefully choosing clothes, activities, and even photographic poses to shield her right arm from scrutiny.
So it’s more than a bit ironic that there’s now a prosthetic accessory named after her: the Nicole Pro, a specialized yoga attachment for upper-limb amputees. Launched just three weeks ago, the new product is available from Koalaa, a UK-based firm that manufacturers “soft” prostheses that eschew hard-shell sockets in favor of flexible fabric. This innovative approach brought Koalaa some design awards in 2020 and a small but loyal user community. The company introduced its products on this side of the Atlantic last year, and the response so far has been encouraging. In fact, US customers provided some key feedback in the design of the Nicole Pro, which combines a wide base for stability with curved edges that enhance rocking, twisting, and fluid movement.
As it turns out, the Nicole Pro is the second Koalaa product that bears Brennan’s name; the first, known simply as the Nicole, was developed primarily for surfing and fitness activities. Earlier this month we caught up with Brennan, Koalaa’s marketing and brand manager, to learn the origins of the new yoga-centric device and get a better sense of the niche Koalaa is hoping to fill. You can learn more about the company at their website, yourkoalaa.com, and on Instagram at @koalaacommunity. To order the Nicole Pro, send an email to email@example.com. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
A yoga tool is a super-specialized function. How did the idea evolve?
With all of our tools, we send them out into the community and we don’t really know what’s going to come back or what people are going to be up to with it. When the Nicole tool was launched, people started to send in videos of themselves using it for yoga, and we got a lot of feedback around that and people got really excited. There were a lot of really strong reactions. I got on a yoga mat and tried it, and I’ve got a video of myself getting quite emotional about it, because it was the first time that I could fully participate in a yoga flow without having to worry about where the yoga blocks or the side of the sofa are. It was similar for quite a few other users. Having all of those barriers taken away and being able to fully participate, it was quite emotive.
Some of our users in the US started throwing around ideas on how the Nicole could be made a little bit better for more advanced moves, like when you’re like overextending, reaching, trying to do one-arm balancing kind of motions, side-planking, things where you need more stability and a wider base. So after hearing all that feedback from them, and from our UK users as well, we decided to create a tool that could support the more advanced movements. The design team created various prototypes, we sent them out to those individuals, and there was lots and lots of feedback and testing. We sponsored a yoga session, which you may have seen on our Instagram, where we brought in eight individuals with limb difference. They were taught by a yoga teacher who also has a limb difference, and we had a physical therapist there as well. And the eight people were fitted with the new tool that day in the studio and got to use it straightaway. That was a really powerful event.
I’m not aware of any other prosthetic devices that are specifically designed for yoga practice. Is the Nicole Pro the first of its kind?
It’s the first of its kind in the UK. There is something out there called the Shroom Tumbler from TRS. But there’s nothing like this.
For anyone who’d not familiar with Koalaa’s soft-shell design, describe how it compares to a standard carbon-fiber prosthesis.
Basically, it’s made out of the same materials you’d find in your shoes. It’s lightweight fabric that’s far more comfortable than carbon fiber. I had hard-shell prosthetics from the age of six months all the way to 15. And then I stopped. They weren’t functional, they didn’t help me in any way. Some of them did have a functional attachment; I had a few hooks with the harness that goes around your shoulders, and I had a myoelectric that kind of functioned. But at a certain point I told my parents, “I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
And then I started a charity to help people with limb difference [the I Am Possible Foundation], which got me in touch with the founder of Koalaa [Nate Macabaug]. He called and asked if I would support a project they were doing, and he offered me one of the prosthetics. And I immediately was like, “Nope. Prosthetics—I’m not going there again.” But he was really personable, really friendly, and I liked his values around the company being user-led and focusing on comfort and function. I would never have thought I’d be working for a prosthetic company, but their values and the way they’ve gone about it was the game-changer, honestly.
Elaborate on that for me. What was it about this product that got you over your aversion to prosthetics?
For me personally, the big difference is that it’s way lighter. I think it’s 250 grams [about half a pound]. And it’s all adjustable. You’ve got the sleeve, like the shell of the prosthetic, and then there’s a cover that goes over it, which is all adjustable with Velcro. So if it’s hot and your limb swells, then you can adjust that and loosen. We’ve had a lot of people raising the topic around weight gain or weight loss and how it’s adjustable for that as well. And then for young children who are growing—I think I’ve got about nine or ten prosthetics from my journey with hard-shell prosthetics growing up. Whereas our sleeves are adjustable, so they can last a child a few years before you’d need to get a new one. So it’s way more sustainable in that sense.
And I think the other thing is, obviously, the fact that you can pop different tools on and off to change what activity you’re doing.
Other than the Nicole and the Nicole Pro, what are some of the other attachments?
So the Sarah tool, that’s a handlebar tool that can be used for cycling or scooting, anything that has a handlebar. There is the Kitty, which can be used for anything from holding cutlery to pens. The majority of our tools are kind of multifunctional, actually. I’ve used the Kitty for skipping rope. It’s got a wrist function, and it can grasp anything cylindrical. We have the Janet, which is a more locked-in version of the Kitty that hasn’t got the wrist function. There’s the Grace tool, which you can use to play the guitar or any instrument that uses a pick. Like a ukelele. We have the Rushton and the Amy, which are a large gripper and a small gripper.
Do people order directly from Koalaa, or do they order through their prosthetist?
There are two routes. You can go direct to our website, and then you fill in a form and talk to one of our Limb Buddies, which is our customer service. Or you can raise it with your clinician. We are trying to partner with clinicians in the US, but we’re not up on the coding system yet. We’re exploring that at the moment.
If I order directly from Koalaa and work with a Limb Buddy, what is that process like?
You would go through our website and fill in the form, and that will go straight to a Limb Buddy. We’ve got two Limb Buddies. Amy, who is the mum of a little girl with a limb difference, supports all the children. And Sarah, who supports all the adults, has a limb difference similar to myself. They usually set up a call so they can understand your needs, explore the product range with you, and make sure that what we’re suggesting is supportive of what activities you want to do. Then they’ll have you measure your limb in certain points and send those in, and then they send it off to the workshop. And then it just gets shipped out to you.
Is there anything you can share about additional tools that you have on the drawing board?
At the moment, we’re very much focused on equity and wellness, and knocking down barriers for individuals who don’t have access to kind of any wellness activities. There’s lots of exciting things that we’re looking at in the wellness space, so watch for that. We’ll be working very hard on knocking down those barriers around wellness.