Grant money could help 'transform' wheelchairs

Grant money could help 'transform' wheelchairs

CHAMPAIGN — Champaign-based IntelliWheels Inc. has received a $1.5 million grant to design multispeed geared wheels that will help wheelchair users get around easier.

IntelliWheels' proposed "i" series of products would give wheelchair users the option to shift into high and low gears, giving them the ability to independently maneuver themselves over hills, uneven surfaces and longer distances.

"Even though it's an ambitious goal, we hope to have something that will hit the market in two years," said company co-founder Marissa Siero.

The grant is a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grant through the National Institutes of Health.

The support will enable IntelliWheels to work with researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on how the innovation affects the joints of users — specifically, whether it decreases joint stress and pain. Collaborating with them will be TiLite, an ultralight wheelchair manufacturer in Pasco, Wash.

Founded in 2010, IntelliWheels already has one product on the market — the X2, a set of single-gear wheels that wheelchair users can buy from durable medical equipment dealers or through the Intelli-Wheels website. The set of wheels sells for $495.

Those wheels "make it twice as easy for them to push themselves forward and backward," Siero said, noting that the lower gear makes use of a 2-to-1 gear ratio.

"If someone is struggling to push themselves, this allows them more independence, going uphill, over carpet and over thresholds in a house," she said.

The new product to be developed "will transform the functionality of a manual wheelchair by having a lightweight dynamic solution," Siero said.

Using the multi-speed geared wheels, "wheelchair users can do more than they ever have before," she said. "They can increase the speed at which they choose to travel, allowing them to go further distances. Plus, they can shift into low gear so they can go over grass and (traverse) different environments."

IntelliWheels President Scott Daigle, also a co-founder of the company, said he hopes to develop a wheel under 5 pounds with multiple speeds and quick release from the frame. If IntelliWheels can do that, the set of wheels would weigh less than 10 pounds.

The company plans to use the expertise of the UI's Human Dynamics and Controls Laboratory to develop a force- and moment-sensing hand rim during the first year of the grant. During the second year, the lab would help analyze joint biomechanics to determine whether the device reduces the load on joints.

Meanwhile, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a team in the Rehabilitation Innovation Motion Analysis Lab will work with wheelchair users, in hopes of determining whether a reduction in hand-rim force leads to decreases in joint pain.

The lab plans to recruit 15 veterans with spinal cord injuries from the Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee to see whether geared wheels make manual wheelchairs easier for users to push.

TiLite's role in the project will be contributing to engineering and design and to product testing.

IntelliWheels, initially a student start-up at the UI, employs five. The staff works from an office in EnterpriseWorks in the UI Research Park in Champaign and from shipping, assembly and development space in the Rantoul business incubator.

Siero said the grant will enable the hiring of two more engineers — a mechanical engineer and an electrical engineer.

She said the existing X2 product has been well-received by dealers, and awareness of it is just beginning to build. She said the product has been promoted through the durable medical equipment industry, with physical therapists and rehabilitation nurses who work to keep patients active and through regional magazines geared to older adults.

"We're proud, happy and excited to take the next step with the company," Daigle said. "What this grant allows us to do is get out and develop the best devices available for those who use wheelchairs — and for the time and expertise required to get to that point."

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