Jim Finch: Paradigm Shifter

Jim Finch challenges the status quo on many levels: He’s a C1 complete quad, yet he breathes without a vent. He regularly puts in 12- to 15-hour workdays, surpassing the work output of most nondisabled people. Dissatisfied with the limitations of power wheelchairs, Finch and his family researched, designed, built, and now manufacture and sell power wheelchairs capable of conquering extreme terrain with precision handling–all started with just a home computer and a shoestring budget. In the process he and his dad earned four patents and induction into the Texas Scientific Hall of Fame. When I caught up with Finch, I soon discovered that his “paradigm shifting” stems from hard work, creative thinking, seizing opportunities, and a willingness to take chances.

The second youngest of six children, Finch grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and shared family interests in hiking, camping and steam locomotives. In August 1978 his father took the family on a camping vacation to Colorado to ride the famous Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge steam train. On the drive home a drunk driver smashed into the Finch’s vehicle, killing his youngest brother, Billy, and breaking Jim’s neck. On a rural New Mexico highway, Jim’s father kept him alive by performing artificial respiration for five hours before they made it to a hospital.

Finch spent the next two years in the hospital, surviving several close brushes with death, and seemed destined to spend his life on a vent. “I didn’t like the respirator, it was bulky to haul around, made it tough to talk, and I was always worrying it would quit or the tube would become disconnected,” he says.

In 1979, while in rehab at the Texas Institute of Research and Rehabilitation in Houston, Finch learned he would be a good candidate for a set of new devices called phrenic nerve stimulators, surgically implanted pacemakers that cause the diaphragm muscles to expand and contract. He decided to give them a try. Two surgeries later he said goodbye to the respirator and became the 12th person in the world to breathe with phrenic nerve stimulators. “I’ve been using [them] for almost 23 years, and I’ve traveled up to 8,000 feet in the mountains with no problems. They’ve made my life so much better, they are totally incredible,” says Finch. He had to have the first set replaced in 1997 after wearing them out.

The first few years following injury were rough. Finch was plagued with so many medical problems that he didn’t think he would live to see 25. The C1 paralysis caused a severely curved spine, resulting in additional respiratory problems. Again he decided to take a chance, having rods attached to his spine to straighten things out. The procedure worked. Between the nerve stimulators and the rods in his back, Jim has good posture and a strong voice. “Nowadays I kind of laugh when a therapist asks what level injury I am. When I reply ‘C1 complete’ I often get a reply of ‘That’s impossible, you’d be dead.’ What can I say except, ‘Well, sorry to disappoint you,’” he says, chuckling.

The Challenge
Through all the medical turmoil, gradually Finch regained his health and started looking toward the future, earning a high school diploma and taking computer science classes at San Antonio College. Travel was still tough, so he viewed the classes on tape and had several tutors help out at home. He also hooked up with Texas Rehabilitation Commission. By 1986 he had convinced them to provide him with one of the first generation Apple computers and a voice recognition system which enabled him to do his school work as well as dial the telephone, send faxes, and operate the television and room lights via voice command. Finch says the folks at TRC saw he was serious and making progress, so they upgraded his computer equipment as his skills increased.

Although computer science and programming looked like a good way to earn a living, Finch was more excited about working on full-length projects. His dad, Tom, is a self-taught, successful engineer with quite a few patents in the aviation industry. In 1988 he gave Jim a computer aided design program for Christmas along with a few ideas on how to get started working on designs. About this time Jim’s disenchantment with wheelchair design started to grow. The family had moved to Spring Branch, just outside San Antonio. The Finches had blasted a steep, rocky road into the side of a 70-foot cliff going down to the Guadalupe River. One day Finch tried to drive his chair up the road and burned up a set of batteries. The experience, instead of discouraging him, motivated him to start toying with the idea of building a wheelchair that could conquer the road.

In 1990 Finch graduated with an associates degree in computer programming from SAC. He planned to get his four-year degree, but decided to take the summer off and work on his wheelchair design. “I kind of laugh about that now, because here it is 2002 and I’m still working on that summer project. My dad started giving me advice on how to set up a project on CAD and I started with the idea that I wanted to design a chair that was lighter, faster and very tough because I was going to put it through hell,” he says. “I started with a blank computer screen and went to work.”

While working on his power chair project, Finch also helped his dad with various side projects–from doing the preliminary design for thrust reversers on jet aircraft engines, to wheelchair lifts for double-decker railroad cars, to design on stereo speakers. In addition he was working as a computer programmer for 50-Off, a chain of discount clothing stores. At the end of a workday, he and his dad would kick around ideas for the power chair and Jim would work out details on his CAD system.

After going through a multitude of variations, they started zeroing in, and in early 1994 Jim and Tom received their first patent–on the transmission of the chair. “At the time we didn’t have any money to have a transmission case machined to see how the parts meshed together,” recalls Jim. “This was critical. So we did the next best thing–used a jigsaw and cut and glued up a wooden version. Immediately we saw a bunch of improvements that were needed and we went back to the drawing board and made changes until the wooden model was perfect.” In November 1994 Tom and Jim’s stepmother, Janet, traveled to the Medtrade show in Atlanta with hopes of selling their patent to a major wheelchair manufacturer. They were told that the design was too expensive to make and probably wouldn’t work anyway. Instead of dampening the Finch’s enthusiasm, the comments lit their fire, and in early 1995 Jim and Tom decided to go into the wheelchair business full time, forming TEFTEC Mobility.

The Race To Build Prototypes
Even with some investors, money was scarce. Finch’s dad liquidated what assets he could, and Finch cut back his attendant staff hours to put every dime into the project. “I worked on saving money other ways, like going through scrapyards with my attendants looking for the kinds of metals we needed,” Finch says. He focused on design, and Tom handled the business end of things and helped with design. Janet did the marketing. Jim’s older brother, Tom Jr., was the electronic, welding and machine guru.

The plan was to have four working prototypes in a booth at the Atlanta Medtrade show in November 1995. “Looking back, there were so many people in the industry that would tell us, ‘No way you can pull this off,’ but we were lucky that we didn’t know it couldn’t be done. We put in countless 20 hour days,” says Finch. “The living room became the central design and assembly room. It was insane, but it was great. We still didn’t have a name for the chair. I had been calling it the Phantom because up until the last minute we didn’t have anything more than computer images and models. My dad and stepmom came up with the official name, OmegaTrac. Janet contributed ‘Omega’–the last letter in the Greek alphabet–meaning it will be the last chair a person will ever need to buy, and dad came up with Trac because of the chair’s precision tracking and drive qualities.”

The first transmission wasn’t put together until a month before Medtrade. A week later they finished the first prototype. After some minor tweaking, Jim took it on a test ride, first around the driveway, then over the grass, and finally the ultimate test, a full run down the rocky path to Guadalupe River and back. Everything went smoothly, with Finch in total control. “At that point I had a great sense of excitement and pride mixed with a sense of disbelief,” he recalls.

Still having more prototypes to finish, they worked around the clock. When Medtrade rolled around, they had four completed working prototypes, two of which weren’t tested until the day the show opened. All four worked perfectly.

At Medtrade ’95 the OmegaTrac booth was a sensation–I witnessed it personally. Here was Finch, a C1 quad no less, smoothly driving a power chair over a demo test track that climbed up a 43-degree slope, leveled off, went up a curb, then down a set of steps. To top it off he smoothly drove the chair back and forth over a set of side angle ramps that would cause many power chairs to tip over. But the real mindblower was an unplanned performance. Finch, tired of waiting for an elevator, casually powered on to the escalator and rode up to the next floor.

Fruits of Success
Following Medtrade, Finch’s life went into overdrive. He and his dad jumped through hoops to get four patents for the chair: anti-shimmy caster wheel mounting, bevel steering gear integrated drive transmission, suspension system for powered wheelchair, and power-operated wheelchair. The FDA approved the OmegaTrac in 1996, and in the spring of 1997 Joe Delio of Swanzey, N.H., purchased the first unit for sale. “My MS and other health problems had progressed to the point where I needed a wheelchair,” says Delio. “I had a loaner chair while in the hospital but in five weeks I burned out the front bearings. I had seen an ad for the OmegaTrac and my wife was impressed when she called and the CEO (Tom Finch Sr.) answered and she could hear machine work going on in the background. We figured this is a down-to-earth company. I’ve had the chair since 1997 and I like it more each year.”

With the success of TEFTEC, Finch, who hadn’t gone on an extended road trip since his accident in 1978, now has approximately 60,000 miles of road trips to different trade shows and expos under his belt. And his Omega Trac has taken him on some great adventures, including wheeling up and down the steepest hills in San Francisco, cruising amongst the giant Redwoods of Muir Woods and returning to Durango, Colo., to ride the narrow-gauge train to Silverton. “The sounds of the train whistle, the fantastic smell of pine trees and the train’s burning coal are just as I remembered them,” he says.

Business at TEFTEC is brisk. One gets exhausted just listening to a description of Finch’s usual workday, which starts at 5:00 a.m. so his attendants can get him to work by 9:30. He comes back home around 4:00 and does a long weight shift–working from his bed–then gets back up and works on his home computer, which is hooked up to the office, until calling it a night at around 10 p.m.

At age 37, Jim Finch has far outlived his original hope of 25 and is going strong. His life is not all work, either. He goes to the Texas hill country or the coastal areas of Texas whenever he has a chance. He also enjoys having dinner with friends and loves going on road trips, Southern Utah and Colorado being his favorite destinations. As far as any serious relationships are concerned, he says, “So far the woman of my dreams is still in my dreams, so I’m single and available.”

Finch’s 12-hour plus workdays may seem extreme, but one gets the distinct feeling that design is a passion rather than a job. When asked about future plans, he rattles off, “I have at least five years of projects on the drawing board at the moment. We just received Medicare K14 approval on all of the OmegaTrac chairs. Business is booming. And I look forward to each new autumn when we are rushing about getting a new invention ready for the Medtrade show. Life is good!”

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