Ultralight Inspiration

Smart Ultralight Wins Toyota Foundation’s Top Prize

Phoenix i

PHOTO COURTESY TOYOTA MOBILITY FOUNDATION

The Phoenix i smart ultralightweight wheelchair from Phoenix Instinct has taken the top prize in Toyota’s Mobility Unlimited Challenge.

In a global announcement on Dec. 17, the United Kingdom-based manufacturer was awarded $1 million U.S. to continue developing the Phoenix i, a carbon-fiber-framed chair that features front-wheel power assist and a smart system that automatically adjusts the chair’s center of gravity for more efficient and safer self-propulsion. The goal of the Mobility Unlimited Challenge was to create “gamechanging technologies to improve the lives of people with lower-limb disability,” according to the announcement from the Toyota Mobility Foundation.

The Phoenix i was chosen over four other finalists: the Evowalk smart wearable simulator, which uses a smart system to support muscles during walking to prevent falls (Evolution Devices, United States); the Qolo standing mobility device (University of Tsukaba, Japan); the Quix highly mobile walking exoskeleton (IHMC & MYOLYN, United States); and Wheem-i, a wheel-on ride-sharing device for people who use wheelchairs (Italdesign, Italy).

The Mobility Unlimited Challenge began in April 2018, when 10 innovators were named Discovery Award winners and given $50,000 U.S. each. In January 2019, that group of 10 was narrowed to five finalists, each of whom was given an additional $500,000 U.S. to develop a prototype for the final judging.

Phoenix Instinct’s founder and CEO, Andrew Slorance, a wheelchair user since sustaining a spinal cord injury at age 14, was emotional as he accepted the award and praised the work of the other finalists.

Slorance recalled his first wheelchair — which he remembered as very large and bulky — and vowing to design a better one. In a press conference following Phoenix Instinct’s win, Slorance described the Phoenix i as “taking the proven and updating it with smart technology.”

In a news announcement from Toyota, Slorance added, “Winning the Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge is incredible for Phoenix Instinct and for wheelchair users. The wheelchair as we know it has been technologically unchanged for decades. The funding we received allowed us to prove smart technology makes for an easier-to-use and safer wheelchair with the potential for a suite of new features.”

The Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh provided technical advice to Mobility Unlimited Challenge competitors and also hosted the judging panelists, who hailed from Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Slorance said he expects the Phoenix i wheelchair to be ready for production in 18 to 24 months. One of Phoenix Instinct’s priorities, at least at this early stage, is to deliver a chair that’s comparable in price to existing ultralightweight wheelchairs.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Mobility Management.

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