Local Company Is Making ‘The Mountain Bike of Wheelchairs’
For the cofounders of Cambridge-based Global Research Innovation & Technology (GRIT), a summer in East Africa changed everything. As MIT students, they were learning about wheelchairs in developing countries—and they were shocked at what they discovered.
“There were literally piles of broken wheelchairs that no one had the parts to fix, and they were really hard to use on the roads there,” remembers GRIT’s Chief Technology Officer, Mario Bollini. “We came back and realized that rather than making incremental changes to what was already there, we should take a step back and design a new product that more appropriately met people’s needs.”
Bollini and his cofounders began brainstorming and eventually came up with the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC), which they had manufactured in India. Unlike traditional wheelchairs that work by spinning metal rims attached to the wheels—a difficult motion to make, and one that produces little torque—GRIT wheelchairs feature levers that the rider pushes in a benchpress-like motion to power the chair forward across uneven terrain and obstacles. Word spread, and after a few years, demand for a similar chair grew in the United States. “If you’re in a wheelchair in the U.S., there are still a lot of places you can’t get to,” Bollini explains. “It’s a big quality of life improvement to be able to get off-road.”
Despite the demand, Bollini says the transition to the U.S. was a difficult one: In addition to needing to switch from parts easily found in developing countries to those prevalent at home, U.S. riders found a major flaw in the LFC. “They told us that the performance was awesome, it was really good off-road, but it didn’t fold to fit into their car. It wasn’t something we had every considered, because in developing countries our riders don’t have cars,” Bollini says. “Riders here were like, ‘This is breaking news, but I’ll never be able to live with this.'” GRIT took the feedback into account and produced a domestic model of its design, called the Freedom Chair, and launched a Kickstarter campaign in November to finance its production.
Riders’ input was key to producing both the LFC and the Freedom Chair, Bollini says. “No one in the company is in a wheelchair and none of us live in a developing country, so as designers it took a big leap of imagination to put yourself in the shoes of the person that’s actually using the product,” he says. “It was a good first lesson for us, that you really need to have a tight feedback loop with the people that are using your chair.”
Bollini says the Freedom Chair, which is currently marketed as a recreation device rather than an everyday chair, is projected to cost around $3,000, a price on-par with other high-performance models and considerably less than other all-terrain wheelchairs, and will likely be available in early 2015. The LFC is currently offered for around $300, and at some point in the future, he says, GRIT hopes to combine the two products.
“In the next few years, we see the two models merging together. We see a lot of good innovations in terms of folding and better manufacturing techniques that we’ve come up with to make this model,” he says. “We don’t see the world as developing world or developed world; we see it more as people with disabilities want to have a normal quality of life.”