Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) cannot possibly be the easiest industry for a startup. Seating and wheeled mobility equipment is heavily regulated, and, due to its highly clinical, often custom nature, is largely dependent on funding from health insurance entities. In addition, rehab manufacturers have to defy societal stereotypes that lower expectations for people with disabilities.
None of that has discouraged engineers at Montreal-based AWL-Electricity (AWL-E), who have developed a wireless power mobility charger that they hope will change the world.
Improving Power Chair Rider Autonomy
This is not the world’s first wireless wheelchair charger. In 2018, engineering teams from Utah State University and the University of Colorado announced “the first-ever prototype of an electric wheelchair that charges via wireless power transfer.”
The 8×8′ charging pad “eliminates the need for a plug-in charger and promises to significantly improve user mobility,” a Sept. 17, 2018, news announcement said. “The system recharges the wheelchair when it’s positioned over a specially designed charging pad.”
The AWL-E team says its system offers benefits and features that the Utah State-University of Colorado system did not.
Francis Beauchamp-Verdon, AWL-E’s COO and co-founder, has familial roots in rehabilitation. His mother has been President of a rehabilitation hospital for more than 10 years, and in his youth, Beauchamp-Verdon sustained a spinal injury with an uncertain prognosis. Those factors make him speak passionately about why AWL-E chose to design this product.
“The wireless charger that we have developed is called the Agile Station, and its name reflects its main benefit, meaning that all power wheelchair users possess the necessary level of motion to recharge their device themselves,” he said. “All they need to do is to position their power wheelchair over the charging mat, then the charger starts automatically, without any further human interaction.
“I would say the main benefit is the autonomous charge, even if they don’t have the necessary range of motion [to charge their chairs via traditional means]. We’re giving them back their autonomy. Furthermore, we’re removing a task from a very long list of other tasks for the caregiver. At AWL-E, we believe all their attention should be given to the human, not to the device that is part of their life.”
Moving Into the Community
The Agile Station has a smaller footprint than a traditional power chair or scooter. Unlike typical chargers — which require a power chair rider or caregiver to plug power cords into the chair and a power outlet — the Agile Station starts charging automatically once the power chair rolls onto it. The system can also communicate with power chair riders or caregivers by relaying power alerts and by monitoring charging processes. It plugs into a traditional power socket.
But efficiently charging power mobility devices at home is just the start of what the AWL-E team envisions.
“The autonomous charge will allow for what we consider a more dignified charge in a public place,” Beauchamp-Verdon said. “At a food court at a mall, a charging mat could be integrated under the tile at a special table, where the charging will happen while you’re eating and without having to do anything else. Chargers could also be put at desks at places of work or at the library. This autonomous charging will decrease battery anxiety and increase the activities that can be done in one day.”
Providing More Than Power
The Agile Station, Beauchamp-Verdon added, also does much more than charge batteries.
“It is a smart charger,” he said. “It monitors the life of the battery, how fast the battery decharged. If the battery needs, for its health, to decharge to under 20 percent and then get a full charge, we monitor the cycle of decharge and full charge to increase the battery’s life expectancy. If your device starts losing power too fast — if a branch is stuck in a wheel or something like that — you will get warned by the charger that there might be something wrong because power consumption is too high.”
Scanning the QR code on the Agile Station opens an app that provides data on the rider’s power chair. Because the app leverages localization technology, Beauchamp-Verdon anticipates users one day being able to look for Agile Stations installed in airports, convention centers, medical centers, universities.
Currently, Agile Stations would be added to existing facilities. But Beauchamp-Verdon said, “It works through concrete and through ceramic tiles.” So in the future, the wireless chargers could be incorporated into facilities being built, with locations perhaps being marked by a graphic stenciled onto the floor.
Just as car-charging stations are now common sights in shopping center parking lots, Beauchamp-Verdon envisions “an ecosystem where chargers exist in commercial spaces. This will increase the size of the universe [power chair riders] can access.”
He referenced Canada’s Tim Hortons restaurants, similar in their ubiquity to Starbucks in the United States. “Having a charger at Tim Hortons would allow the charger to attract customers, and [power chair riders] can have a charge while having coffee and eating donuts,” he noted. “They can go a little further or get back to their original point with a little less stress.”
Learning from the Journey
AWL-E had big dreams for Agile Station, but is considering practical factors as well. “We are the first company to build a wireless charger leveraging our technology,” Beauchamp-Verdon said. “We’re making sure to make it under $600. And the price will reduce as it gets adopted by more users and gets more popular.”
Asked the challenges of starting the business, he replied, “I would say the hardest thing is most people consider us to be an improvement on the wired charger. We know the device we built is much more. The battery of a power wheelchair represents its potential through the day.
The more devices you add on the power wheelchair, the less long the battery lasts. By making the charger autonomous, we’re giving [the rider] back their autonomy, which is good for their mental health, but also is increasing the possibility of whatever the user can achieve.
“The challenge is to make people see us as something new that brings a lot more benefit rather than just an improvement on something that already exists.”
He also referenced the large number of stakeholders: “There’s the manufacturer, the distributor, the physician and healthcare specialists, the families, and the device users.
Everybody sees the benefits of the charger, but everybody has different features, utility and price points in mind.”
And Beauchamp-Verdon noted balancing being responsive to investors while staying true to the AWL-E team’s mission.
“As a startup, we rely on investor money until our company and product are [profitable], and many investors have pushed back on the decision to go into this industry because they don’t realize how many power wheelchair users exist,” he said. “Sadly, it’s an unseen group of people because a lot of public spaces aren’t adapted for those users.
“Our wireless technology can charge many types of devices. But we wanted to make a difference in the lives of individuals. At AWL-E, we believe that new, good technology brings opportunities to people who didn’t have those opportunities before. So we choose to build a power wheelchair charger first, and what we learned through the journey is you need to be in the field, hand in hand with users and their caregivers as much as possible.”
AWL-E’s first two partners were senior residential facilities including Appartements du Square Angus managed by Gestion Socius. One home’s residents needed very significant support, while residents at the other facility were more independent. “We realized the wide variety of needs of power wheelchair users, and through those visits we were supported by government institutions that developed new technology for rehabilitation,” Beauchamp-Verdon said. “We also had many visits with Amylior. Without that input, we would only have been able to help a small portion of power wheelchair users. Everybody has different needs, so being with that community as much as possible was most important.”
And no more group is more important, Beauchamp-Verdon said, than power chair riders themselves.
“The company was developed by five engineers,” he explained. “In the beginning, we were going to put a little target on the power wheelchair that would indicate how well parked [the chair is] on the center of the mat. The users told us, ‘Just put one little green light on for when we’re well parked. We’re going to be happy, we’re going to know it’s working, we don’t need any more information than that.’ We were going to over engineer it. And it is the users that told us what they needed. This is what we’ve learned on the journey: Go into the field and ask the users.”
Other challenges, Beauchamp-Verdon added, are that the Agile Station is often compared to wireless phone chargers and therefore considered a “gadget”; and that families and seating teams ordering power chairs and related components sometimes balk at adding a wireless charger to their to-do list.
The AWL-E team is unfazed. “There’s some resistance,” Beauchamp-Verdon acknowledged. “That’s the reality for all startups: There’s always resistance to change. It’s only people who believe enough in the change that they’re bringing that will be able to push through that resistance and bring that new technology and innovation to the world.
“If we made a laptop wireless charger, we would probably have given up along the way. Though some investors told us to pick another device, I know we made the right choice by choosing something that aligned with our values.” E-mail Beauchamp-Verdon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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