On a roll: Madison’s RoWheels could revolutionize the $2 billion manual wheelchair market

Any businessperson knows that it’s hubris of the highest order to try to reinvent the wheel, but if Rimas Buinevicius is right, the wheelchair may well be another story.

As the CEO of RoWheels, a Madison-based start up, Buinevicius is hoping his company can radically improve the lives of wheelchair users through an engineering breakthrough that’s nothing less than a revolution in how a wheelchair’s wheels function.

In short, RoWheels’ innovation allows users to pull rather than push a chair’s hand rim in order to propel themselves. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s an improvement that’s been a long time coming and could make all the difference to manual wheelchair users, who often suffer serious repetitive stress injuries as a result of the pushing motion they’re currently forced to use to navigate their environment.

“I also explained the advanced manufacturing acumen that’s up here in Wisconsin and also the strong biking and health care industry, and explained to him that this would be a valuable resource if he wanted to work with us on getting the business going.” – Rimas Buinevicius

Sound like a problem in search of a solution? Not if you’re one of the approximately 1.6 million Americans who regularly use a wheelchair. According to Buinevicius, pulling a wheelchair’s hand rim is much more efficient and far easier on the arms and shoulders than pushing it. He said that shoulder-related injuries among manual wheelchair users are common – afflicting as many as 51% of operators, according to some estimates. In addition, the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome and rotator cuff tendonitis is north of 50% for manual wheelchair users, as opposed to 3% for the population as a whole. Given the sheer number of wheelchair users in the U.S., those numbers should be no less than alarming.

“We’ve been told by physiologists and folks who have studied nature and animals and things like this in terms of the biomechanics of human movement that the basis of all animal movement is a pull-based motion,” said Buinevicius. “So think about dogs that run, cats in the wild and such. The real power of their motion is in the pulling that they do, and it’s similar to humans as well.

“Another way to think about it is to look at major league baseball pitchers who throw overhand, versus women softball pitchers. Major league pitchers are doing probably the worst thing they can do to their shoulders in terms of inflicting stresses and strain. So it’s that difference between pulling and pushing that we can highlight.”

Space-age technology?

But while the advantage of pulling a hand rim versus pushing it is well understood, it took the acute needs of two forward-thinking individuals to get the technology up to speed. Indeed, while wheelchair engineering may not exactly be rocket science, it did take a full-time NASA engineer working in his spare time to get the RoWheels concept off the ground.

Salim Nasser, a structural design and analysis engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, came up with the invention after being hit by a drunk driver and suffering a spinal cord injury about 18 years ago at the age of 20. Nasser soon identified a need for a new kind of chair that would be easier to propel, and while in graduate school, seized on the concept, exploring it in his master’s thesis.

Unfortunately, while an inventive mind can accomplish great things, marketing a product and raising capital often require a radically different skill set, and that’s where Buinevicius came in. With his background in technology, finance, business planning, and marketing and his extensive experience with early-stage companies, Buinevicius was just the sort of champion Nasser’s invention needed – but he never would have come along had it not been for a bad break of his own.

A little less than two years ago, Buinevicius suffered what he referred to as a “fairly severe” leg fracture as a result of a sailing accident. The injury was bad enough to confine him to a wheelchair for about nine weeks, and he quickly recognized the limits and inefficiencies of standard manual wheelchairs. That’s when he went looking for a product that would make his life easier and stumbled upon Nasser’s innovation.

“I was looking at about an eight- to 10-week rehab and recovery period and wanted to maintain some mobility and exercise during that period, and I ran across his invention on TechCrunch, and I called him primarily as a potential user, a customer for a product,” said Buinevicius. “And we got to talking, and I realized that he had been trying to get his product out to market for maybe eight to 10 years, and it wasn’t that easy to do, primarily because he had a full-time job at NASA. And I explained to him what we do with start ups and getting businesses going.”

The “we” in this case was Madcelerator, a Madison-based business accelerator headed by Buinevicius that works directly with entrepreneurs, offering them management expertise and help in sourcing working capital. Nasser was listening.

“I also explained the advanced manufacturing acumen that’s up here in Wisconsin and also the strong biking and health care industry, and explained to him that this would be a valuable resource if he wanted to work with us on getting the business going, and he agreed,” said Buinevicius. “And that’s where we started the relationship back in 2011.”

 

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.”

Gearing up

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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