CHAMPAIGN – Fresh from winning the $30,000 Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize, Scott Daigle is eager to get an array of products for wheelchair users onto the market.
Daigle was awarded the prize Wednesday, largely for his plan to equip wheelchairs with automatic gear shifting to make their operation less burdensome for users.
But his company, IntelliWheels Inc., is also working on other products like Caster-Skis that allow a wheelchair's small front wheels to slide across the snow. Otherwise, those wheels might dig in, bringing the chair to a sudden halt and throwing the user.
He's also working on all-weather tire covers for wheelchairs, spare tire kits for wheelchair users and a lightweight "onboard" tool kit for repairs.
"We want to be the innovation house for wheelchair technology," said Daigle, whose company is housed in EnterpriseWorks, the University of Illinois incubator for start-up firms.
Daigle, 24, plans to finish up his graduate work in mechanical engineering at the UI in August. He then expects to stay in town and devote full-time to IntelliWheels.
"We want to stay right where we are – where we began and where we got all our support," he said.
Daigle got the idea for his enterprise in the spring of 2009 and, with the encouragement of lecturer Brian Lilly, pursued it. That fall, Daigle met Marissa Siebel while working in the motor control lab of the Department of Kinesiology.
"I realized we had very similar goals. Both of us were interested in developing technology for wheelchairs, and we had a complementary skill set," Daigle said. "I'm an engineer – I create, I design, I build. She is one of the most positive, energetic people I ever met."
When IntelliWheels makes a pitch to prospective investors, Siebel takes part in the presentation, he said.
Daigle said the company has no investors yet. But the company was awarded $20,000 from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and won $6,000 in the Cozad New Venture Competition on campus last year.
Now with $30,000 from the Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize, Daigle hopes to do more testing of products under development. Specifically, he wants to learn from wheelchair users whether his innovations are really useful – whether they'll be a hit.
Daigle and Siebel have been dealing with many of the UI's wheelchair athletes – a natural fit since Siebel is a trainer who works with the athletes.
"She's the voice of the wheelchair users in the company," Daigle said. "That connection keeps us focused."
Daigle also benefits from the advice of two other IntelliWheels co-founders – Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler and Jacob Sosnoff.
Hsiao-Wecksler is an associate professor of mechanical science and engineering, and Sosnoff is an assistant professor of kinesiology and community health.
Daigle said there's wide potential for his inventions. About 2.2 million people in the United States use wheelchairs, and 120 million people do worldwide.
IntelliWheels hopes to come out with the spare tire kit in the next three months.
"It has everything you need to change a tire on a wheelchair," Daigle said. "You don't have to push your way back on a flat rim."
The kit includes instructions for people who haven't changed wheelchair tires before, he said.
The all-weather tire covers that IntelliWheels is developing use "the same idea as chains on tires of a car in winter," Daigle said. "They stretch on over the wheel to secure it quickly and give you added grip."
Without them, the back wheels would tend to slip on ice, and the front wheels would tend to get stuck, he said.
Daigle said IntelliWheels has gotten more national attention since announcement of the Lemelson-Illinois prize. He has recently spoken with MSNBC and Scientific American.
"We're getting all this great feedback from people around the country," he said. "We want to ride the wave and move forward."