CHAMPAIGN — Champaign-based IntelliWheels has developed a product to make getting around in wheelchairs easier.
The product, known as the Easy Push, is expected to come on the market in January.
Easy Push is a set of wheels that can be retrofitted to any wheelchair.
"It's a simple product to make it twice as easy to push the wheelchair," said Scott Daigle, the company's engineer and chief executive officer.
By pushing on the wheels' hand grips, wheelchair users get a 2-to-1 gear ratio that makes it easier to get around.
"It's just like shifting to a lower gear on a bike. You have to pedal twice as many times to go the same distance," he said.
Initially, IntelliWheels had concentrated on developing an automatic gear shift for a manual wheelchair. But Daigle realized the real need in the wheelchair community lay elsewhere.
At first, "we were really developing a product that could be used by young, active wheelchair users who wanted to get out and see the world, conquer hills and do all those great things," he said.
"In reality, the real need is in the geriatric population. There are 1.5 million Americans in nursing homes today, and over half of them use manual wheelchairs on a day-to-day basis," he said.
"We thought about it and made a big pivot," going with a simpler concept — a set of gears that makes it easier for wheelchair users to operate their chairs.
"It's not for climbing hills or going high speed," he said. "It just makes it easier to get around."
That ease is important, particularly for older patients.
"It's the difference between relying on someone to move them and relying on their own power to move the wheelchair," Daigle said.
"Lots of times, they have a lack of strength in their arms," making it difficult to operate a manual wheelchair, he said.
Power wheelchairs and power scooters are options, but it can be risky for patients with dementia or Alzheimer's to use power equipment, he said.
"This provides mobility but also provides safety," Daigle said. "Anyone can use it."
Daigle said he expects the product to become available in January.
"We're starting out with a carefully controlled launch within this area. A few will be going to patients at Carle Hospital, a few to Kankakee, Chicago and Detroit," he said.
"Once we verify that the product works well and (its cost) can be reimbursed by Medicare and insurance, we'll go with a nationwide launch," he said.
He's targeting the nationwide launch for March.
At this point, IntelliWheels hasn't determined an exact price for Easy Push, he said.
Josh George, the company's director of public relations, said the staff is focusing most of its marketing efforts on "doctors, therapists and durable medical equipment suppliers."
The company is also visiting rehabilitation hospitals and holding in-service training sessions to acquaint professionals with the product, he said.
IntelliWheels is also creating a feedback loop so it can hear from users, George said.
"It's crucial to IntelliWheels that we interact with people actually using our product so we can gain insights on what they like and don't like," he said.
Marissa Siebel, the company's vice president of marketing, said IntelliWheels is also developing a relationship with Easter Seals in Peoria, which encouraged the company to develop a pediatric line.
"It's neat to have a relationship with Easter Seals," said George, a wheelchair athlete who has competed in the Paralympic Games. "I get to interact with children with disabilities and show them what's possible."
Daigle said he expects rehabilitation doctors to evaluate patients, and if the doctor determines an Easy Push is needed, a durable medical equipment supplier handling the product would be contacted.
If all goes as Daigle anticipates, the purchase would be covered by Medicare or private insurance, provided there's a prescription from the doctor.
IntelliWheels tested its product this year at the Clark-Lindsey Village retirement community in Urbana.
"We were able to have five of them in use at Clark-Lindsey for the course of one to two months," Daigle said. "People used them every day to get down the halls or in rehab."
One patient previously had to rely on a nurse or aide to come to her room and push her down the hall to dinner.
Now, "for the first time, she's been able to push herself in a manual wheelchair," he said. "She's able to use her own power, pushing on the hand rims."
Daigle received a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois in December 2011. He started the company three years ago and now devotes full time to running the company and producing gear-shifting wheels for manual wheelchairs.
In addition to working at the company, Siebel is pursuing a doctorate in community health at the UI, with a specialization in disability studies. She also serves as athletic trainer and manager for the UI's wheelchair racing team.
George received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the UI in 2007. He returned from the Paralympics Games in London this summer with a bronze medal. He also earned medals in previous Paralympics Games, winning two bronze medals in Athens in 2004 and a gold and silver in Beijing in 2008.