Technology
The standing wheelchair, launched earlier this month, allows users to rise up into a standing position while using it.
YouTube Screengrab | Phoenix Medical Systems

When Sujatha Srinivasan returned to IIT Madras as a faculty of the Mechanical Department in 2008, 15 years after she graduated from the institute, she was keen to study the assistive devices available in the country.

“For my graduation research project, I had worked with CMC Vellore in this area. So, I wanted to see what has changed after my return from the US. I realised, not much, though it had been 15 years,” Sujatha tells TNM.

And thus came up the idea for the research centre that would focus on making affordable and functional assistive devices. The centre, R2D2, pulled off its first launch – the standing wheelchair – earlier this month. Launched by IIT Madras in collaboration with Phoenix Medical Systems, the wheelchair, with deft, automated motions, enables the user to rise up to a standing position. And with an affordable price of Rs 15,000, it became a plausible innovation, and not just a one-prototype research project that would gather dust inside the lab.  

The centre that designed and developed the device, TTK Center for Rehabilitation Research and Device Development (R2D2), is headed by Sujatha who believes in seeing “tangible benefits” out of her research projects. Vivek Sarda and Swostik Sourav Dash for the other two core members of the research centre team. 

At R2D2

How the idea came up

The idea for the standing wheelchair was sown in 2012 by a student, Harshal Chaudhari, who worked on a basic prototype for his final year project. “It was made out of wood and scrap metal. While the concept worked, it was not very stable and needed improvement,” Sujatha says.

The idea of a wheelchair that allows the user to stand itself is not new. However, a basic device with this function would cost Rs 1.5 lakh, and a customised, imported wheelchair could go up to Rs 10 lakhs, Sujatha says.

Professor Sujatha

“On one end, you have really expensive stuff and on the other end, you have a very low cost, primitive technology that is sometimes rejected by the users. We were looking at functional and affordable devices to provide users with options,” she explains, adding that their wheelchair has some unique aspects in terms of safety features and adjustability.

While the 2012 prototype garnered a lot of interest, Sujatha shares that it was quite difficult to get students to work on it. So, it took a while to find interested students to restart the project.

“We also realised we needed more funds and support. Around that time, we saw that the Wellcome Trust, UK, had an ‘Affordable Healthcare in India Award’. One of my students was willing to stay back and work on it if the funding came through,” she narrates.

The rigorous application process required to look for an industry partner to be able to submit a strong proposal. “That was when a colleague introduced me to Phoenix. I asked the MD, who had come to see our prototype, if it would be possible to do it for Rs 25,000. He said it might be possible to make it for lesser. There focus was on affordability,” Sujatha shares.

Arise Standing Wheelchair

The team ultimately won the Wellcome Trust funding.

Working on the wheelchair

While Vivek began working on the project from 2015, he was soon joined by Swostik, his senior by two years, who came back from a well-paying job. R2D2 hired additional staff and put together a dedicated team to work on the standing wheelchair in 2015.

Talking about their four-year-long journey, Sujatha says, “The Spinal Foundation, CMC Vellore, and NGOs like Association of People With Disability and Amar Seva Sangam helped us get feedback from many users. After many versions, we ran ISO standard tests, and sent the device to St John’s Hospital in Bengaluru where 30 users used it for three days each. We were then ready to launch.”

The design is licensed to Phoenix Medical Systems which will be manufacturing and marketing the standing wheelchair. Sujatha adds a word of caution: “The standing wheelchair may not be suitable for everyone. For instance, if the user has not stood in 20 years, they might first have to undergo some bone density tests and/or additional therapy before trying the standing wheelchair. It is best to consult with their therapist before purchasing the wheelchair.”

R2D2 will next work on developing material on how to customise the device, and also conduct training workshops.

Challenges of a research institute

While funding is a primary concerns, Sujatha shares that here, TTK Group’s role has been invaluable. “About five years ago, Mr TT Jagannathan of TTK Group, who is also an IIT alumnus, wanted to fund something that was socially relevant. He agreed to fund our work by establishing the TTK Center for Rehabilitation Research and Device Development (R2D2). We’ve been able to set up testing facilities, and also run the Centre and projects between funding gaps because of help from TTK.”

But the assistive devices market itself is a challenging arena. “There’s low purchasing power -- especially after an injury, people may become financially dependent. This is also a donation market and hence price-sensitive. There is not a lot of private industry investment,” she points out.

But this is where a centre like theirs has an edge she believes. “Users are not aware of what they can get and there aren't many possibilities in India. We use appropriate technology for functional devices. While is it unusual for research centres to take their innovations or prototypes to the market, here, we are trying to do exactly that. It’s the only way we can make an impact.”

“Unfortunately the assistive devices market works on the ‘one size fits all’ principle. The users also put up with it because they have no choice. We want to change that,” she adds.

Other projects

R2D2 has many interesting projects in the pipeline. There’s the polycentric knee -- a prosthetic knee joint; Optimus, an all-terrain wheelchair; and a wheelchair that responds to generic body movements. “Children with cerebral palsy may not be able to use fine body movements. This wheelchair will allow them to move with gross body movements i.e. if the child tilts to one side, it will turn; and if the child leans forward, it will move forward,” Sujatha explains.

Neo Motion Wheelchair

Another exciting project that’s on the pipeline is the NeoFly - a wheelchair that can turn into a motorised vehicle with an attachment, called NeoBolt. This is being commercialised by NeoMotion, a startup that spun-off from R2D2. While NeoFly is ready, the startup is planning to launch NeoBolt early next year. 

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