The hardware startup Whill, wants to redesign the wheelchair, but that is not all the company wants to accomplish. They also want to fight the stigma surrounding disability, by creating lustrous and modern mobility devices for all. The company was founded by former Sony, Olympus and Toyota engineers and their first retail model, the Whill Type-A, is now available for pre-orders and will be ready for delivery within the U.S. early next year.
Whill is part of 500 Start-up‘s accelerator program and they have raised a total of $1.7 million so far. Other investors include Facebook, Itochu Technology Ventures, Japan engineer Eric Kwan, SunBridge Global Ventures and Wingle Co.
The company entered Tech Crunch Tokyo in 2012 with a prototype of an electric add-on that allowed wheelchair users to travel for longer distances. Whill decided to develop a complete device with a four-wheel drive after showing their exhibit at the Tokyo Motor Show and then conducting market research in Japan the U.S. and the UK. First the team interviewed 150 wheelchair users from the U.S., where they’d received the most demand for an alternative, based on their research. The company found that people wanted devices that were both agile and yet stable. Most important of all though, people hunted for something that would help remove the negativity surrounding wheelchair use. Whill’s director of business development, Atsushi Mizushima said, “Imagine a car, bicycle, scooter or skate board, all devices that basically make you feel happy…only the wheelchair, as a mobility device, makes people feel uncomfortable. People’s perception of those devices, are that they are limiting.”
One of the biggest differences between the functionality of the Type-A and traditional wheelchairs are the front-arm controllers that let users navigate by leaning forward, thereby transferring their weight to help steer. This mimics the posture of motorcycle and bicycle riders. “In addition to the aesthetics, what we try to achieve is the feeling of driving a car, motorcycle or skateboard…They can choose to take the lean-in position, which makes them look more active and lets them feel like they are riding a motorcycle or other cool mobility device instead of forcing them to take a passive sitting posture.” says Mizushima
Whill’s controller can be operated like a gaming joystick, with a single hand. Two other modes allow the user to sit close to tables or lean back and relax when they are stationary.
The other major improvement Whill makes to a standard wheelchair is a better balance between turning radius and terrain coverage. In order to make small turns, wheelchairs need to have small front wheels, but those have the tendency to get stuck in cracks or when traversing over coarse surfaces such as pebbly areas. Whill’s team spent time developing a unique all-around wheel with freely moving rollers. This enables the Type-A to have a turning radius of 28 inches and gives it the stability to pilot rough terrain and clear bumps up to three inches high.
Mizushima says the first batch of chairs will include some premium features as an incentive for early adopters of the design. Whill wants to have the Type-A approved as a medical device by the U.S. F.D.A. (Food and Drug Administration) To enable it to be eligible for insurance coverage, as well as making it available to other countries. To extend manufacturing, the company is currently talking with original equipment manufacturers in Mexico and Taiwan. Future models of the device will include software integration, such as apps, alerts and data analysis that can warn users about a reduced battery supply and upcoming obstacles in their path.
Mizushima made a bold statement saying, the company wants to “create the iPhone of mobility devices”. He adds that Whill hopes its mobility devices will ultimately be seen as not just as alternative to traditional wheelchairs, but as an energy-efficient transportation, like the Segway.