Many users of the iBOT say that “standing” in balance mode is more important to them than the ability to climb stairs.

Many users of the iBOT say that “standing” in balance mode is more important to them than the ability to climb stairs. Photo by Matthew Lomanno Photography

The original iBOT holds the rare distinction of being both a huge failure and a revolutionary industry changer. When inventor Dean Kamen pulled back the curtain on his groundbreaking wheelchair design on national television in 1999, viewers marveled at the chair’s ability to “stand” and balance on two wheels, tackle snow, sand and other tricky terrain — and most notably, to climb and descend stairs. Kamen had set out to create a personal mobility device that would make the world more accessible for wheelchair users, and technology-wise he succeeded. The iBOT was decades ahead of its time and introduced ideas that shifted the paradigm of what a power wheelchair could do, ultimately resulting in cooler products for wheelchair users.

At the same time, even with all the buzz, from a business standpoint the iBOT bombed. Despite a reported investment north of $100 million by Johnson & Johnson, only 500 iBOTs were purchased over seven years. Compare that to the approximately 20,000 power chairs sold annually by industry leader Permobil.

Johnson & Johnson’s decision to discontinue the iBOT in 2009 was far from surprising but left behind a passionate base of users and industry watchers to ponder what could have been if the iBOT had found more robust sales.