Any entrepreneur will tell you that one of the keys to successfully launching a new product is making sure there is a market for it. On that score at least, the prospects for a new invention from Cheltenham-based osteopath Jason Rosser and his former practice partner David Ponton could hardly be brighter.
Because their product, called Flexibak, is designed to tackle Britain's number one health problem, lower back pain. And that means the number of potential UK customers for the two men's company, Flexibak, is well up into the millions.
In fact, David is so confident about its prospects that he is giving up a lucrative practice treating the back problems of some of the world's top horses, including the mounts of Badminton and Olympics champion Mark Todd, to devote himself to running the company full-time.
Back pain is undoubtedly one of the curses of the age. Long hours at work spent sitting in front of computer screens or behind the wheel of cars, followed by hours of leisure watching television, are partly to blame. And it's a problem which particularly affects women.
BackCare, the national charity which devoted its annual back pain week to women in the autumn , says women's back pain tends to last longer than men's, with men more likely to have a short sharp attack. The reasons for this are easy to understand; less easy to resolve. Women tend to work in jobs requiring repetitive physical tasks; they often have to bend and carry heavy loads during domestic chores such as ironing and cleaning; pregnancy and periods can lead to back pain; and fashions such as high heels can cause back problems, too.
Over the years, all sorts of back care devices, from special pillows to vibrating back massagers, were sent by manufacturers and brought along by patients to Jason's practice in Cheltenham."Unfortunately, while some of them may have had some limited use, many were poorly designed, based on dubious medical understanding and largely ineffective," he says.
Eventually, Jason, who trained for four years at the European School of Osteopathy, decided to design something himself. "What I set out to do was apply osteopathic principles of support to back products, all the time trying to find and treat the cause, rather than the symptoms, of back problems."
Over a seven-year period, all sorts of designs were tried and rejected, before he came up with the idea for Flexibak , a product comprising eight wooden sections designed to fit the lower back, which are pivoted on a central rod. Jason explains the osteopathic thinking behind Flexibak: "The origin of the majority of back problems is compression of the lower joints. To tackle this, osteopaths are forever suggesting that people swim and do other exercises to decompress the joints. What Flexibak does is augment these exercises, but in a much more concentrated way. It supports 66 per cent of a patient's body weight and encourages the lumbar and sacro-iliac joints to open up, relieving pressure on inflamed muscles, strained tendons, bulging discs and compressed nerves."
There is no need, Jason says, to use Flexibak for hours on end. Ten minutes a day of lying on your back and gently swivelling your legs from side to side should be ample. Flexibak has been tested on more than 100 patients over the last 2 years. They include college lecturer Jill Bateman, aged 38, who started using it last year when she was expecting her son, Hamish, now 6 months old.
"I remember the first time I used it, which was when I was about five months pregnant. I had taken a group of students to London and my back was in absolute agony from being on the coach. I just lay down for half an hour on the Flexibak and I couldn't believe it, it really relieved me."
Someone else who has benefited is 56-year-old Joan Leeks, who lives in Bentham, Gloucestershire. The causes of her back pain are among the most common, she has cared for elderly parents for the last 15 years, which has meant frequent heavy lifting, and she was the victim of a car accident three years ago.
"I use Flexibak just before I go to bed and I find that, by keeping the movement very gentle, it loosens things up so that I have much, much better night."
Gloucestershire hospital consultant Dr Adrian Jackson is among those in the medical world already giving his backing to the product, which was launched in November . "I can personally recommend this scientifically researched and elegantly constructed equipment for the maintenance of normal flexibility of the lower spine and sacro-iliac joints," he says.
Flexibak has submitted Flexibak to BackCare's national bosses for evaluation, with a view to it being named as a BackCare-accredited product. Although he has not yet tested Flexibak himself, John Thackwell, chairman of the Bath Support Group of BackCare, says it is important that people do not despair and that they explore different options for coping with their problem.
As a long-term back pain sufferer himself, he welcomes the emergence of a new back care product from the West and says it is certainly worth trying. "You've got to have an optimistic frame of mind. People should try various steps. For example I have found chiropractic to be helpful myself."
Flexibak can be ordered from Flexibak Limited on the freephone order hotline, 0800 085 0900.
It costs £79.95, plus free package and posting, and comes with full illustrated instructions and a 30-day money-back guarantee.
According to Department of Health figures, 27 million people in the UK report suffering back pain in the course of a year. With 119 million working days lost annually, it's the country's biggest course of absence from work. The cost to industry is put at £5.5 billion.
And 85% of all back pain occurs in the lower back. What's more, it's a problem that is really growing. BackCare, the charity formerly known as the National Back Pain Association, says that back pain doubled in the 1970's, doubled again in the 1980's and may well have done so yet again in the nineties.