MechE Spinoff Launches All-Terrain Wheelchair in US
Based on an original design for use in developing countries, new Freedom Chair is specially designed for US and European markets.
Global Research Innovation and Technology (GRIT), an MIT MechE spinoff started by Tish Scolnik ’10, Mario Bollini ’09 SM ’12, Benjamin Judge ’11 MEng ’12, and Assistant Professor Amos Winter SM ’05 PhD ’11, recently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the U.S. debut of their founding technology, the Freedom Chair.
GRIT is a social-enterprise startup that relies on in-the-field research and user feedback to guide its products. The Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC), which was originally developed for emerging markets, is the basis of the new Freedom Chair, which was specially designed for the U.S. and European markets.
In 2007, the GRIT team came together as students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering to create a wheelchair that fits the needs of people with disabilities in developing countries. They needed to design something that could travel off-road for approximately two miles a day, could be powered manually with ease, and was small enough to use indoors — all at an affordable price. It was these constraints that forced Winter, Scolnik, Bollini, and Judge to veer off the established path and create an entirely mechanical wheelchair at a fraction of the cost.
Made out of widely available bike parts, the original LFC’s design is based on simple geometry and eliminates the need for complex mechanisms or high-tech elements. By pushing on two levers and adjusting the height of their grip, LFC users vary the torque going into the drivetrain as needed, based on the environment.
Some engineers may consider the restrictive parameters involved in designing products for the developing world a hindrance, but the GRIT team revels in it.
“These types of challenges are extremely difficult to solve, with no clear solution, so we really have to innovate,” says Winter, principal inventor of the LFC. “But there’s a potential for huge impact, and you may affect a person in a life or death way. And if your solution works in a very constrained environment, then it has the potential to work well everywhere.”
The new Freedom Chair is that potential realized. After speaking with hundreds of U.S. wheelchair riders, the GRIT team created a wheelchair to meet their specs, featuring a lever drive that allows for movement over obstacles with 50 percent more torque than pushrims; standard U.S. bike parts for easy repairs and infinite customization; three big wheels to roll over obstacles that would trap standard casters; and portability that enables users to store the chair in the trunk of a small sedan.
“We have designed the Freedom Chair to be a global product platform that can enhance the mobility of wheelchair users in rich and poor countries alike,” says Winter.
Within five days of launching on Kickstarter, the U.S. Freedom Chair met its funding goal.