The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs defines necessity is the mother of invention in this way: “When the need for something becomes imperative, you are forced to find ways of getting or achieving it.” In interviewing four inventors of well-known disability-related products, that theme proved to be the common denominator among them. In fact, how many wheelers have thought during a daily task, there has to be a better way to accomplish this!
But there’s a distinction between most of us and inventors. While many of us have similarly-inspired thoughts of a device to solve a given challenge, we usually don’t act upon them. Inventors are different. When they have an idea for a device to improve their life, they plow full speed ahead. This raises several fascinating questions. First, where does the truest inspiration stem from in those who pursue creating a product to meet the needs of those with disabilities? Second, how does one move from an idea to actually doing something about it? Third, what are the challenges and joys of bringing a disability-related product to market? And finally, what’s it like to transition from pursuing a passion to running a business?
Here are the stories, experiences and wisdom of four inventors whose products you likely know and might even own, and here is how they moved from an idea to a life-enhancing product available to many.
Freewheeling an Idea
For Pat Dougherty, necessity and invention were discovered as close to home as it gets. “As an incomplete quad, I’ve always used a manual wheelchair,” says Dougherty, 52, of Boise, Idaho. “Around eight years ago, I was in my backyard trying to play ball with my kids on the grass. It was a pain. My front casters kept sinking in, and I just couldn’t push worth anything on grass. I figured there had to be a solution.”
A Hewlett-Packard employee at the time, Dougherty just wanted to solve this one issue for himself. “I figured that putting a larger wheel upfront that could be put on and off would work,” recalls Dougherty. “So, ironically, I used the materials from an old bike rack to make my first prototype. It didn’t work well, but it proved what I was looking to do. By lifting my casters off of the ground and rolling on a large front wheel, I could propel on tougher terrain.”
Dougherty became passionate about his one-man project. When he wasn’t at work, he was behind his home computer drawing concepts. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought that if it could solve my need, it could solve others’ needs,” Dougherty says. “I needed a large front wheel that could be installed and removed easily by the user.” It was then that Dougherty learned an invaluable lesson as an inventor: “Keeping things simple is the hardest part. I knew that I had to find a way that a quad like me could attach and remove the wheel. But how could I do that?”
The challenge was how to attach a large front wheel that lifts the front casters off of the ground. After all, how do you lift the casters off the ground, and add a front frame with a wheel on it, while still in the chair? “It was one of those light-bulb, ah-ha moments,” says Dougherty. “I realized that by angling the fork stem geometry, I could use the wheel itself for leverage. By mounting the wheel attachment to the footplate with the wheel in the rearward direction, when I pushed forward and pivoted the fork, it naturally lifted the casters off of the ground and off I went. The FreeWheel was born.”
Dougherty refined his design by using it around the HP campus. He also discussed his invention on Internet message forums. International demand was immediate. “I made 25 that first year in my garage and shipped them to users around the globe,” he says. “Users loved it, and I used their feedback to make it better. You have to listen and know your market.”
Soon, after demand exceeded the several hundred made in Dougherty’s garage, he sought a manufacturer, set up a website and displayed his invention at an Abilities Expo in Los Angeles. Orders rushed in, and the FreeWheel was an enormous hit. “The hardest part was in converting the product from my garage to a business,” says Dougherty. “It’s one thing to be passionate, but running a business is different. I’ve learned to listen, ask questions and learn — and it’s an ongoing process.”
Today, eight years from that day when he was playing ball in the backyard and felt a need for a solution, the FreeWheel is sold in 45 countries. Dougherty now runs the company full time with a staff and his twin brother. With a retail price of $599, and insurance coverage by the VA and other insurers internationally, the FreeWheel is among the best-selling ultralight wheelchair accessories of all time, allowing users to convert an everyday ultralight wheelchair for hiking, exercise or around-town travel.
When speaking of what he’s learned as a successful inventor, Dougherty says, “It takes more than an idea. Ideas just sit there. You have to act upon them, understand your market, your product and your customers. It’s a whole package.”
For Mary Boegel, bringing her product to market wasn’t easy. In fact, she had to both change social views and create a market to bring her dream to realization.
“Before I got into manufacturing the first independent-use standing frames for use in the home, I was among the original Quadra team in the 1970s,” says Boegel, an L1-2 incomplete para. “With Quadra
Back in the 1950s, the VA began standing programs for those with paralysis. By the 1970s, leg braces and institutional standing frames were a rehabilitation standard nationwide. However, Boegel and Dr. Glenn Reynolds, also a para, saw two flaws in traditional standing programs. Institutional standing technology was cumbersome, and standing couldn’t be accomplished independently. The device could only be used at rehab centers. Boegel and Reynolds saw great health benefits to in-home standing, but neither the technology nor the clinical vision existed to allow it.
Boegel enlisted her industry colleague — and eventual husband — Bruce, and he engineered and built two standing frames for in-home, independent use. Reynolds used one and Boegel used the other, both to great success.
“Dr. Reynolds and I were thrilled with the results, but didn’t think much beyond our little project,” Boegel recollects. “However, one eve, Bruce and I had a party at our house for a bunch of wheelchair tennis players. The next thing I knew, they were fighting over my standing frame. Bruce and I then knew there was demand.”
In 1983, Boegel and her husband began building standing frames in the garage of their rental house, distributing them among wheelchair tennis players. However, when Boegel initially demonstrated her standing frame to rehabilitation facilities, they balked at the idea, maintaining that standing programs should only be done in a clinical setting.
“I eventually targeted all 17 rehab hospitals and met incredible resistance,” she says. “Therapists didn’t want part of their job seemingly being taken away. But we weren’t looking to change the facilities, but to add to rehab by enabling the therapeutic benefits of standing at home. Thankfully, Rancho Los Amigos, Santa Clarita and Craig Hospital rehab clinics saw our vision for outpatient, in-home standing programs.”
By 1985, Boegel made serious headway in changing how the rehabilitation community viewed standing programs, with enough orders to require 18-wheelers to deliver raw materials to that rental house, violating ordinances.
“Our dining room was the office, and the garage and driveway were our manufacturing facility. We built five standing frames at a time, selling them on the road. We were totally broke, living on change and soup, but we knew we were onto something.” Soon, her company, Prime Engineering, moved into a true manufacturing facility and flourished.
“A big day for me was showing the Granstand at the Abilities Expo the first time, and people lined up wanting to buy it on the spot,” says Boegel. “We’ve been in business 30 years now, and in seeing how so many have found our standing frames a life-changing event, I wouldn’t change any of the struggles we faced along the way.”
Boegel has learned a lot in her journey. “There’s always something that needs doing. Do it. Do your homework, learn and don’t let anyone smack you down. Follow your passion.”
Reconstructing the Business of Bathing
It’s been all but impossible to not run across an advertisement for the Nuprodx MULTICHAIR over the last decade. The portable bathing and commode chair line — now consisting of over 25 models — revolutionized travel for those in need of bath, shower and commode chairs, with 12,000 sold to date. However, getting to this point was no easy feat, as inventor Bruce Hammer attests. “We went several years without making money but saw demand consistently growing,” he says. “So we stuck with it.”
For Hammer, 65, Nuprodx started on a trip from his home in San Francisco to New Jersey in the 1980s. A C6-7 quad, Hammer needed a bath bench that he could take on the road. “Being an architect and former motorcycle racer, I was good at modifying things,” he explains. “So, I took a standard bath bench apart and made it fit in my suitcase. It was then that I figured there had to be a better way.”
For the next decade, Hammer simply refined and built travel benches for himself. Then, in 1998, with seed money from his mother, he formed Nuprodx to manufacture and sell travel benches. “At my first Abilities Expo (Anaheim), I only had renderings of our first product, the MULTICHAIR 2000,” recalls Hammer. “But, people wanted it, so I knew I had a product that would sell.”
However, once in production, customers had concerns. “The first folding version had a lot of wobble to it, so although it was ultimately stable and safe, people were put off by it. We ended up redesigning it and improved customer perception. I learned a valuable lesson, that listening to customers is key. You may believe in your product, but the customer has to, as well.”
“Listening to consumers is ultimately what built our business,” says Hammer. “The MULTICHAIR 2000 was great, but consumers asked for a bath, commode and shower chair in one, leading to the MULTICHAIR 3000. From there, we’ve built and built and built new models, with sliders and tilt chairs added. The line has grown to where we never stop listening to customers and are always adding new products to meet demand.”
Despite Hammer’s success, he still faces challenges. “We build the highest quality products and they’re not inexpensive. That said, our customers have shown that our products last and last. Our biggest challenge is in manufacturing such high quality products. It’s a constant cycle of coordinating U.S.-based manufacturing and staying on schedule. We ship most customer orders the same day we receive them, so we work hard to stay on top of it all.”
When asked about China-based manufacturing, Hammer says, “We could manufacture cheaper overseas, but the quality would likely be less and we couldn’t turn product around as quickly. I have an obligation of quality and quick delivery to my customers, and I haven’t seen a way to do that by manufacturing overseas.”
His business strategy is working, with seven employees and a product line that just keeps growing. So, besides an ingenious product niche, what’s his larger secret to success?
“Tenacity,” he says. “Never give up on your vision.”
A Better Grip
Of our four inventors, Joe Olson, a 33-year-old C5-6 quad, is the newest. In fact, Olson — less than a year into his formal product, the ErgoJoystick — is still working a day job as he gets his product to market.
The ErgoJoystick began for Olson in 2007 as a quick little personal project. “I was working at the Human Engineering Lab in Pittsburgh,” he says. “I got a new power chair and realized my old joystick knob didn’t fit on my new chair. So, I used my engineering skills to make a new one.”
Olson quickly saw the shortcomings of industry-standard joystick knobs, specifically that they lack ergonomics and don’t function as they should. “I realized that typical knobs are designed for an upright position,” he says. “When you push the joystick forward, the angle changes and knobs become harder to grip, fatiguing the hand. So, I looked for ways to make my knob work better under those constraints.”
By using 3-D CAD software and modeling the palm of his hand, Olson created a knob that wasn’t a knob at all, but a large, molded surface that rested his palm atop the joystick. What’s more, he designed the surface to be most ergonomic in the joystick-forward driving position.
“Once I knew it would work, I spent a year optimizing the design,” he says. “After I’d gotten it to where I wanted it, it seemed like it could work for others. So, I had a few made, giving them away in return for feedback. Then a local rehab center loved the design and I started to think bigger. Maybe I could manufacture these for others?”
He found a company that takes 3-D CAD models and transfers them into one-off nylon components. This process, although a bit costly, allows him to make his aptly-coined ErgoJoystick knobs one-by-one, customizable in size and color, sold through his website.
“Right now, I’m just glad to be helping people,” Olson says. “The ErgoJoystick is so much more functional than a quad goalpost handle or knob. I just enjoy making a difference with my technology. I have been seeing the potential for a larger market, possibly within geriatrics, where arthritis is a common issue. But I’m still exploring where to go with it all. I don’t know if I want to be a nonprofit or for-profit company. But I know I want the product out there to meet demand. I know that my current manufacturing costs exceed funding, so if I want to sell through DMEs, I need to bring costs down. That probably means a more universal design made from a mold instead of custom, one at a time.”
Transitioning From a Passion to a Product
Inventors often find themselves at the crossroads where Olson currently finds himself. Does he grow his company? Should he move toward a broader-spectrum product that can be mass-produced? If he lowers his manufacturing costs, will DME providers pick up the ErgoJoystick line? Where should he go next?
Olson is in the midst of challenges that inventors face in taking a passion for an idea to a prototype to a product to a business. In light of this, what ultimate advice do our other inventors have for Olson and the rest of us?
“You really need to know your product, your customer, and your business,” says Dougherty of Freewheel. “Running a business is the hardest part. Knowing what you don’t know and finding others to help teach you is so important. I don’t have a business background, so I often reach out to MBAs for advice.”
Prime Engineering’s Boegel advises that perseverance is paramount. “If you believe in your product, and your customers believe in your product, it will succeed if you stick to it. If you see an area that needs addressing — like we did in standing programs — get involved and do it. People follow passion, and if you’re passionate, people will follow.”
“Part of creating a great product and business is in supporting those who support you,” says Hammer of Nuprodx. “You’re in business to give customers what they wish for and need. Never lose sight of that.”
Now that we know the stories behind four great disability-related products, what do they all have in common? All of the products began with a single person seeking to solve his or her own need. All of the products were created with little or no money. And all of the products took several years to get off the ground. The foremost traits among inventors aren’t business brilliance or hitting a lucky streak, but passion and perseverance. In this way, maybe there’s an inventor in each of us, after all.