“We recognized the need for a product that could take wheelchairs up and down the stairs without the help of an attendant and at an affordable cost,” said EscaWheel CEO and co-founder Anando Naqui. “The cost is not covered by Medicare, Medicaid or most private insurance.”
The two most popular existing technologies are the stair lift, which transports a person up stairs via track on an attached chair, and a platform lift, which allows the user to roll onto the platform and takes both the wheelchair and the person up the stairs. Both methods have their drawbacks.
The stair lift is designed primarily for those who can walk, but have trouble getting up the stairs. For those in a wheelchair, it means having a wheelchair on each floor and most times an attendant to help transfer the person from the lift to the wheelchair. That technology installed typically runs between $5,000-$7,000 installed. The platform technology, meanwhile, typically costs upwards from $20,000 installed, and most houses don’t have staircases wide enough to accommodate them.
EscaWheel is in the process of patenting a forklift technology. Rather than picking up the wheelchair at the base of the wheels like a platform does, it lifts the wheelchair up from under the seat. This designs minimizes the footprint of the device with forks that can fold up when not in use. The goal is to mass-produce the final product for around the cost of the chairlift.
Naqui notes that with most bedrooms on the second floor of a modern home, making it possible for parents to get upstairs to tuck in their children or read them a story at night is a strong emotional benefit. While developing the technology he spent a few days in a wheelchair to try to understand the issues wheelchair users face. He noted several commonly overlooked challenges such as slippery floors that can’t get traction or thresholds or bumps with one step up or down.
“For a person in a wheelchair, one step might as well be 100,” he said. “If someone has become disabled from an injury say in a car accident, it’s unfair to force someone out of their home just because it’s multi-story.”
The idea started in the fall of 2011 as part of a senior design project by mechanical science and engineering students Naqui, Jake How and Chis Delaney. In 2012, the team claimed first prize in the Innoventor Trophy competition, which recognizes startups that can have potential to make a societal impact and have a viable business model. A finalist for the Cozad New Venture Competition, EscaWheel, won two in-kind prizes -- space at EnterpriseWorks, the University of Illinois’ tech incubator, and services of Singleton Law Firm to help patent the technology.
Over the next two years, the trio set off on different paths, hoping to further pursue refining and commercialization during their spare time. How completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford, while Delaney and Naqui entered the workforce. Recognizing that the business wasn’t advancing in the way and speed, they had hoped for, Naqui, quit his full-time consulting job last fall to focus on EscaWheel full-time. He refined the business model, worked on pitches, engaged investors and prepared for the Kickstarter campaign.
EscaWheel used seed funding from the senior design project to build the first prototype and prove the technology.
They plan to use funds from Kickstarter to build a second prototype that is refined, aesthetically pleasing and more conducive to residential use. The prototype will have advanced safety systems, smarter electronic controls and a swiveling mechanism to rotate the wheelchair 90 degrees and allow for it to roll off straight ahead at the top of the stairs.
The goal is to have the second prototype completed by the end of the summer and start field-testing it in early fall, rekindling the relationship they have made with the award-winning wheelchair basketball program on the U of I campus.
“As a person that has used a wheelchair for 25 years and as a person that has had both a stair lift and elevator modes of accessibility in multi-floor residences, I am excited to see the EscaWheel project move forward,” said Michael Frogley, former U of I coach and now director of wheelchair basketball Canada. “It opens up the possibility of independence and accessibility in a way that could not be considered in the past. It has tremendous potential to improve the quality of the lives of people with disabilities by providing a safe, efficient and affordable option to multi-level dwellings.”