17 January 2022 05:31:42 IST

How a tech start-up helped liberate wheelchair users

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Laxmi Priya (39), from Puducherry, had a spinal cord injury and was dependent on her husband to get to work spot. However, now with NeoBolt, developed by an IIT Madras-incubated start-up, she travels independently and even delivers food from a hotel around her neighbourhood. “For people like me who depend on others always, NeoFly (wheelchair) and NeoBolt (motorised attachment) is a boon and a game-changer. Without anybody’s help, I can shift to a wheelchair from the bed. I can fix the wheelchair myself with NeoBolt; go out; return home; release NeoFly from NeoBolt and return to the bed. This is that easy,” says a happy Priya, who, in a video, is also seen riding her NeoBolt with a small child.

Like Priya, a number of differently-abled persons are confined to the four walls of their homes, unable to come out due to poor mobility solutions and depend on others to move around. Now, NeoMotion Assistive Solutions Pvt Ltd has enabled hundreds of them to come outdoors by developing personalised wheelchairs — NeoFly — that can also be fitted into a motor-powered attachment - NeoBolt. This has liberated many people with disabilities. 

IIT Madras alumni, Swostik Sourav Dash, and Ashish Mohan Sharma, along with Sujatha Srinivasan of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, started work on the product in 2015, at IITM’s TTK Centre for Rehabilitation Research and Device Development. In August 2021, it was commercialised and since then over 800 wheelchairs and around 100 NeoBolts have been sold. The monthly order book keeps growing as the team, along with 30 employees, work at the assembly unit in Puzhal in Tiruvallur district, near Chennai, to roll out the products. 

Innovative product 

It was a seven-year-long journey for the IIT alumni that led to one of the most innovative products to come out of IIT Madras. The team travelled across the country to test their ideas and interacted with over 200 wheelchair users and found that most of them were confined to their homes with poor health, unemployed and no social engagement. 

NeoMotion’s CEO Dash says that every year around three lakh wheelchairs are sold in India with 95 per cent under the concept ‘one size fits all.’ However, this may not suit all, and it damages their body, restricts their mobility and severely affects their self-confidence. Tri-cycles, or modified scooters, are used when they come outside. “To solve the problems, we developed NeoFly and NeoBolt that provides a comprehensive mobility anywhere, anytime without anybody’s help,” he says. 

“NeoFly and NeoBolt are built for people who want to do more. That’s why every push gets you 2–5 metres ahead or every charge gets you 30 km. They are rugged and built to scale new heights,” he adds. 

Word of mouth, and promotions on social media is driving the sales with NeoFly users present across 28 states and NeoBolt in seven states, says Siddarth Daga, also an IIT Madras alumnus, who joined the team after the product was developed and is in charge of sales and outreach. 

Lack of awareness 

Daga says that two major problems caught their attention - lack of awareness and availability of a good wheelchair. One-size-fits-all wheelchairs, widely in use, offered incorrect posture and were difficult to propel. There was a lack of awareness of the extent of damage that a bad wheelchair can inflict on health even in a three-month period, leave alone life time users. 

There were challenges in outdoor mobility with conventional wheelchairs being unusable outdoors. For outdoor mobility, people use alternatives such as tricycles and tri-scooters but these involve transfers from one device to another making the person always dependent. Consequently, many wheelchair users stay within their home. 

The team took the feedback to the drawing board and collaborated with organisations and hospitals working among people with locomotor disability and built the products factoring in their experiences and making constant design adjustments, he said. 

User’s specifications are taken through video calls, and the wheelchair is ready in a week or two. Every day, three to four wheelchairs are assembled, he said. 

NeoBolt, powered by a Lithium-Ion Battery, has a maximum speed of 25 kmph and travels up to 25 km per charge. It empowers wheelchair users with a convenient, safe and low-cost mode of outdoor mobility. 

Customised wheelchairs 

Lakshmi Priya of Puducherry, says an important feature in NeoBolt is that it can go in the reverse direction and can be easily manoeuvred in smaller streets. “For someone who thought I could not come out of my room, NeoBolt has brought me out,” says Priya. Similarly, Vikas (23), a teacher from Jharkhand, too suffered a spinal cord injury and was struggling to commute to his tuition centre. NeoBolt helps him to easily go to his tuition centre, saving him time and energy. 

The wheelchairs are the legs of the body, and they have to be customised according to the person’s measurements, and diagnosis. NeoFly has 18 customisations that cater to every individual so that they get the right fitting, the right posture and the person can work on the wheelchair for 8-12 hours without any back pain or shoulder pain. 

The second solution is for outdoor mobility. For a differently-abled person to get back to work after an injury, they need an accessible, independent outdoor mobility option. This is what NeoBolt does, and can be attached to a NeoFly user, and is designed for Indian roads that have speed breakers, potholes, and rough terrain. Both the products take care of the indoor and outdoor mobile requirements for a wheelchair user. The ‘quick and easy’ attachment design and ‘safety anti-tippers’ have been patented, says Daga. 

Livelihood on wheels 

Having solved the mobility problem, the team has taken up a major project called Livelihood on Wheels wherein the differently-abled persons can use NeoFly and NeoBolt in last mile delivery of food or products orders in ecommerce websites. 

Delivery of food or ecommerce products are usually by able-bodied users but can there be a state where wheelchair users on the NeoBolt deliver food orders or packages from ecommerce website? This is what we envision, that NeoBolt would become an accessible mobility solution for a wheelchair user to get employment, says Daga. 

During a demonstration of NeoBolt, Mahindra Group Chairman Anand Mahindra too suggested that it could be a good last-mile delivery option for a wheelchair user. “We request employers like Swiggy, Zomato, Amazon and Flipkart to participate in this project so that even a wheelchair user can get a job and be independent,” he said. If the start-up’s project flourishes, one can soon see food and products delivered, not on two-wheelers but in a NeoBolt.