BOX 4-12 Three Rivers Holdings, Inc.

The SmartWheel: Development of Wheelchair Pushrim Force and Measurement Device

SmartWheel is a product designed to measure accurately all the key parameters involved in the propulsion of wheelchairs by their occupants. These include including stroke frequency, propulsion angle, acceleration, forces applied to the handrim, velocity, and distance traveled. According to the company, “The SmartWheel is the only commercial product in the world that measures propulsion biomechanics in the natural environment of the wheelchair user.”

SmartWheel has by now been in use as a research tool for more than ten years as a means of measuring and analyzing pain and injury among wheelchair users and also as a means of assessing interventions to address problems. Currently, SmartWheels are in use at leading research institutions including the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the Rehabilitation Institute of Montreal, the University of Washington, the Kessler Medical Rehabilitation Research and Education Corporation, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Alberta.

SmartWheels is now being adapted for use as a clinical product. It has four main uses:

  • Justification of equipment decisions for insurance reimbursement, using precise data to identify users who cannot provide the force need to propel a manual chair effectively
  • Selection of the appropriate manual wheelchair, once again by the application of precise data to the selection process
  • Training that allows wheelchair users to improve propulsion efficiency by reducing the stress on their arms through use of a longer stroke, reducing stroke frequency, and minimizing wasted forces (e.g., pushing directly down on the handrim).
  • Creation of an individualized patient database, showing the effect of adjustments and creating a longitudinal record for selected metrics

The company notes that SBIR awards were used to facilitate its transformation from a hard-wired noncommercial research tool to a wireless, user-friendly commercial clinical and research tool. Leading experts were hired as consultants, and speed to market was accelerated.

All the evidence suggests that use of SmartWheel will continue to expand clinically, and that increasing numbers of wheelchair users will benefit from the technology. Yet commercially, this will never be a major success: The company expects that if sales double in 2005 and continue to grow thereafter, revenues will still only be $1 million in 2006. Still, the social benefits for the specific niche of SmartWheel users greatly exceed any commercial return.

From: 4, NIH SBIR Program—Outcomes

Cover of An Assessment of the Small Business Innovation Research Program at the National Institutes of Health
An Assessment of the Small Business Innovation Research Program at the National Institutes of Health.
National Research Council (US) Committee for Capitalizing on Science, Technology, and Innovation: An Assessment of the Small Business Innovation Research Program; Wessner CW, editor.
Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2009.
Copyright © 2009, National Academy of Sciences.

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