On a roll: Madison’s RoWheels could revolutionize the $2 billion manual wheelchair market
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Since then, the company has received about as much positive press as one could possibly expect for a start up whose lead product has yet to hit the market. In June, the company won the grand prize in the 2012 Governor’s Business Plan Contest, and more recently the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. approved the company for the Qualified New Business Venture program, which makes investors in the company eligible for a 25% tax credit on the amount they invest in the business.
Of course, one might wonder what all the fuss is about given that motorized wheelchairs have been available for years and would certainly prevent the sort of repetitive stress injuries the RoWheels technology is trying to eliminate. But according to Buinevicius, doctors and physical therapists frown on putting people in motorized chairs if it can be avoided, given the well-documented problems – such as obesity and heart disease – that physical inactivity can help cause.
Buinevicius said using a manual chair is preferable, “especially if you still have full use of your arms and have the ability to wheel around in a manual chair. [Using motorized chairs] could almost be equated to a situation where the entire general public decided to ride Segways and stopped walking and stopped any form of aerobic exercise. You’d have this same increase in hypokinetic disorders, things like diabetes and heart disease.”
Of course, with much of the baby boom generation entering its retirement years and a greater emphasis being placed on bending the nation’s health care cost curve downward through judicious use of preventive measures, RoWheels’ timing may be perfect. Buinevicius says the company is currently gearing up for a mid-year product launch and is already getting a number of inquiries from potential customers. According to a study by WinterGreen Research, the manual wheelchair market, which was at $1.8 billion in 2011, is expected to grow to $2.9 billion in 2018, largely as a result of improvements in technology and efficiency.
So while the initial cost of producing a RoWheels chair will be higher than manufacturing a standard chair, Buinevicius is optimistic that economies of scale will make it more cost competitive and that the health care savings achieved through its use will ultimately make it a wise buy.
“It does incur higher costs,” said Buinevicius. “You’re looking at a $2,000 to $2,500 initial price point for this because of the combination of extra gears we have to put into the wheels, the composite materials that are in there, so it’s not something that’s going to be affordable immediately for people who don’t have insurance coverage. Having said that, the justification on the insurance side is clearly there, because we’ve been told by medical professionals that if you can keep somebody out of a $30,000 surgery, then the cost of these types of products makes a lot of sense.”
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