Rob Law: How I defied the doctors - and Dragon's Den

Born with cystic fibrosis, Rob Law lost his sister to the disease, was told he’d die young and never have kids and had his business idea dismissed as worthless on Dragon’s Den. Having just launched his memoir, he tells Helen O’Callaghan about defying the odds, following his passion and keeping fighting when the experts were telling him to quit.

Rob Law: How I defied the doctors - and Dragon's Den
Rob Law and his children — daughter Ida, 6, and his two sons, Rafe, 3, and Kip, 1 — “They’re my greatest achievement,” says Law, who has just published his memoir.

AS A YOUNG man on the cusp of adulthood, Rob Law was told it wouldn’t be possible for him to have children.

Law, now 43, has Cystic Fibrosis (CF), the progressive genetic condition that negatively impacts multiple body functions including breathing and digestion.

“CF — especially for men — affects the reproductive system. It blocks tubes,” says Law, who wasn’t thinking much about babies when told in his early 20s he’d be childless.

But the years went on and his priorities crystallised. “I wanted financial security and I wanted to start a family. I love kids — I’m a big kid at heart. Fortunately, my partner, Kathryn, also wanted children and she’d researched the medical interventions that had come on stream by then.”

The couple embarked on a course of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), used instead of standard IVF when sperm aren’t swimming well enough to fertilise eggs.

It was a challenging journey. We were successful in pregnancy — but we had two miscarriages.”

Rob Law: How I defied the doctors - and Dragon's Den
Rob Law Rob with sister Kate on a family holiday in Canada four months before she died from CF.

And then their fortunes turned, with Ida born in February 2014. Aged six now, the little girl has two brothers, Rafe, 3, and Kip, 1. “They’re my greatest achievement,” says Law, who has just published his memoir.

In refusing to accept childlessness as his fate, Law was doing what he has always done from a young age — defying the expected life trajectory that seemed laid out for him.

At 16 he lost his beloved twin sister Kate to CF. She was a “very bubbly character, very into her books”, whereas he was more “outdoorsy”. Like most twins, they communicated via “our own gobbledegook”. But CF took a stronger grip on Kate.

“Her lungs got to where they were really causing her a lot of difficulty. She was put on a heart and lung transplant list and got a new pair of lungs 18 months before she passed — but her body rejected them.”

Hugely “devastated and traumatised” by her death, Law, who was born near Chester in the UK, realised he could well share Kate’s fate in just a few years — medics said he couldn’t expect to live into his 20s.

“Rather than wallowing, I put CF behind a wall and chose life. In the months after her death, I decided life was to be lived and that mine could be short, so I wanted to get the most out of it.”

Struggling with dyslexia at school, he took refuge in the arts and discovered product design. “I was completely sold on it. I was very excited about designing consumer products — I set out to do the best course I could.”

In his second year studying Product Design at university — looking for ideas so he could enter a national competition — Law wandered into the luggage section of his local department store, noticed “hard-moulded plastic suitcases that were on trend but were all black and boring” and then drifted into the kids’ toy section. “I was looking at the ride-on toys and remembering how my younger brother, Dave, enjoyed going round the garden on his ride-on tractor — and it came to me.”

Rob Law: How I defied the doctors - and Dragon's Den
Rob Law with daughter Ida as a baby. Rob was told he wouldn't be able to have children due to CF.

His idea was the Trunki, a colourful ride-on child’s suitcase. But when he brought it on Dragons’ Den -BBC- in 2006, it was massively rejected — judges said it wasn’t a business opportunity and that the company he’d set up was worthless. “I’d quit my job as a design consultant three weeks earlier. Sixteen hundred Trunkis had just arrived in the UK. I’d just started trading,” recalls Law, who says the humiliating experience is “embedded” on his mind.

“When Peter Jones told me it was worthless, I just didn’t understand the words coming out of his mouth. I had a brand and a product taken all the way to market, so it didn’t sound worthless to me. I was kind of numb. I thought this was the death knell of the business.”

It wasn’t — the Trunki went on to sell in the millions and to win awards — and Law had a moment a few years ago when the constellation of his achievements really hit home.

“We were going to my brother’s wedding and — on the long walk from gate to baggage check — Ida was using her Trunki for the first time and really enjoying riding on it. It struck me: I was on a journey that I wasn’t supposed to have, with a daughter I was told I’d never have, on a product I was told was worthless,” says the man who named his memoir (65 Roses and a Trunki) for his creation and for his condition: ‘65 Roses’ is how young children often get their tongues around ‘cystic fibrosis’.

Health-wise, Law’s on lots of medication, as well as twice-daily physiotherapy for lung clearance. He decided many years ago — “rather than coasting” — to set himself fitness goals: to do a half-marathon a month, three and a half marathons a month, to do the 600-odd miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He “caught the triathlon bug”, competing at middle distance. “With three kids now, I can’t get that level of training. I’ve recently focused on swimming. Last year I did a 6K swim.”

HE COUNTS himself as one of the lucky ones. “There are a lot worse off than me.” The perspective that he’s really “quite fortunate” permeates even the tough phases. In lockdown at home in Bristol with Kathryn and the kids, he knows he’s “extremely vulnerable” to Covid-19 and has been told so by medics. But in life, as in lockdown, his habit is always to focus on the more short-term, on what he can control.

“I shouldn’t be leaving my front door, but I still get out in the evenings for a cycle or run when the kids are down. We’ve got nice gardens, a good coffee machine — I’m grateful for those — and for being able to spend more time with the children.”

RESILIENCE IS A KEY SKILL

Rob Law: How I defied the doctors - and Dragon's Den
Rob Law, who has published his memoir, 65 Roses and a Trunki


What Rob Law says about overcoming challenges and achieving success:

  • Success is just a hiatus in a series of defeats. Believing we can overcome challenges and adversity is what makes us human — it’s what makes us truly grow.
  • It’s helpful when you follow your passion. I’m very passionate about doing good design — to create products to improve people’s lives. I knew the customer wanted my product [the Trunki]. The challenge was the manufacturers, retailers and investors weren’t interested. So I had to find a way to get the product in the consumer’s hands.
  • Resilience is a key skill. It’s realising the challenges you’re facing are going to be finite. They won’t last forever — they will end. But overcoming them takes huge energy. So you have to use your energy wisely — focus on the things you can control and ignore the rest. Health-wise, I can’t focus on whether there’ll be a cure for CF. All I can do is stay as healthy as possible, until there are advances in healthcare.
  • Don’t underestimate the strength of your mind and willpower. When I’m doing my events, like the half ironman, and my body’s falling apart and I’m struggling, mentally I’m incredibly strong and can push my body to do things nobody ever thought I could.

65 Roses and a Trunki, Defying the Odds in Life and Business by Rob Law, €22.60.

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