Wheels of Entrepreneurial Spirits
By Grace Lien, AEL Intern
For Scott Daigle, a second year student in Mechanical Engineering, being an entrepreneur is all about luck – identifying and seizing opportunities when they come along.
“But you never really know when those opportunities are going to get there, so being a good entrepreneur to me is identifying when there are those lucky movements and grabbing them and going forward with them,” Daigle said.
As luck would have it, in spring of 2009, Daigle stumbled upon Engineering 498 – Technology Entrepreneurship and decided to enroll in the course.
“It’s a wonderful course because it allows you to come in with an idea and then he (Professor Brian Lilly from the Technology Entrepreneur Center and AEL Faculty Fellow) gives you the background, the knowledge,” Daigle said. “And in some cases if you are lucky, you’ll get the funding to make your prototypes and your dreams come to life.”
From observing wheelchair users moving around on campus, Daigle had noticed that their arm speed was slowing them down despite going as fast as they would.
“I had the idea back then for a gear shifting wheelchair, something that could make it much easier for wheelchair users around campus to get around; to travel those long distances, or to go up those hills,” Daigle said.
With guidance from Professor Lilly, Daigle spent many nights staying up until 4 a.m. designing the first prototype of the gear shifting wheelchair.
The first prototype, based on a continuously variable transmission, which Daigle describes as a smooth way of changing gears, had a lot of inherent flaws due to limited experience of working with wheelchair users.
As luck would have it again, however, Daigle was introduced to two members in Professor Jacob Sosnoff’s motor control lab in the kinesiology department (which Daigle himself is a part of) who were familiar with disabilities and wheelchair users: Marissa Siebel and Jean Sampson.
With her concentration focused on disability studies, Siebel, a PhD candidate in community health has a long history of working with people with disabilities, including Special Olympics (people with cognitive disabilities) to Paralympics athletes.
Right from the get-go, Diagle’s determination for building an efficient wheelchair caught Siebel and Sampson’s attention.
“We could also see how excited he was about it,” Siebel said. “He was making IntelliWheels work. He was building something. He was creating it. It wasn’t just something he talked about.”
With plans to enter the Cozad New Venture Competition to secure funding for building the second wheelchair prototype, Daigle asked Sampson and Siebel to join IntelliWheels.
When it came to designing the second prototype, the members of IntelliWheel said they focused on the wheelchair users’ needs instead of the technology itself.
“For people who have disabilities that use assistant technology, they really don’t want won’t people to focus on the assistant technology,” Siebel said. “They want the focus to be on them.”
As Siebel explained, unwanted additional weight on the wheelchair can lead wheelchair users to develop chronic shoulder pain. The goal then, was to design a low profile, light piece of equipment that a wheelchair user could easily dismantle and transfer into their car.
To ensure that the second prototype matched the needs of the wheelchair users, Daigle had wheelchair users test out the prototype machine and received regular feedback from them.
“I would invite Scott over to DRES (Disability Resources and Educational Services) where I work, and I would through introduction have him interview the wheelchair athletes, and some of the other students on campus who are also wheelchair users who are not on the team,” Siebel said.
The end result was a lighter, smaller, and more compact wheelchair.
“We went with a three speed transmission that automatically shifts gears based on what the user is doing, how hard they’re pushing, how fast they’re going, and even what kind of hill they are on, Daigle said.
Targeted towards low manual wheelchair users, Daigle said the team will spend the next 18 months doing a lot of user testing and life cycle testing to fix the mechanical discrepancies. The ultimate goal, according to Daigle, is to have a third prototype produced at the end of the 18 months that can be commercialized.
In March 2011, IntelliWheels receieved $30,000 for winning the Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize, given annually to an outstanding student inventor at the University.
The team of two (Sampson is now an advisory board member) credit much of their success to the staff and programs offered by Academy of Entrepreneur Leadership and Technology Entrepreneurship Center.
Over the summer, the team participated in Illinois Launch – a program hosted by the AEL and other participating partners on-campus. Through the program, IntelliWheels and other student entrepreneurs participated in workshops hosted by successful entrepreneurs, and were also provided with a living stipend.
“In this type of environment, the best way to learn is by learning from people who have done it before,” Daigle said. “You are never going to be in the same situation as them, but they have so much knowledge, so much that you can learn from.”
For Siebel, the program was just the right boost to keep the momentum going for the team.
“Having people that have an outside perspective, have experience in the field, which is another thing that AEL program has done, with trying to match us up with people who are in the health and medical rehabilitation field, so we can talk to people have been out there in the specific field - that’s something that gave us confidence to really keep going and develop a product,” Siebel said.
Moving forward, Daigle and Siebel said IntelliWheels will be launching a series of wheelchair related products. Among the products that will be release within the next year include caster skis – designed for the front of wheelchairs to get through snow and slush; an onboard tool kit for wheelchair users to make repairs on the go; an emergency tire change kit for pneumatic wheels (lighter, shock-absorbing wheels used for manual and power wheelchairs); and “grip-and-go,” – lightweight, high-efficient snow chains for snow tires.
“All of these products have been designed because of a need for wheelchair users,” Siebel said.
With an office located at the EnterpriseWorks business incubator at the University’s Research Park, Daigle said he does not see himself getting a job in the engineering industry anytime soon.
“Now that I’ve stumbled upon this great idea, and have found so much support to be able to work towards the end goal – making a profitable company that can last through the years, this is what I’m excited about, that is what I’m passionate about,” Daigle said. “That is what I want to do.”
Visit IntelliWheels website to learn more