Ep.20: Reinventing the Wheelchair

MIT-graduate Tish Scolnik is using the power of business to give people with disabilities a new sense of freedom.

The Story Exchange By The Story Exchange

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Tish Scolnik GRIT wheelchair

Tish Scolnik is using the power of business to give people with disabilities a new sense of freedom. At MIT, she designed a wheelchair that can travel rough terrain, whether a dirt road in East Africa or a hiking trail in North America. And now the young entrepreneur’s company, GRIT, is selling the invention worldwide.

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SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) You’re listening to Good on the Ground...

VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...

COLLEEN: ...You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange.

TISH: Here at GRIT we make the mountain bike of wheelchairs.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: Hi, I’m Colleen DeBaise.

SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.

COLLEEN: This is The Story Exchange and today...

SUE: We. Are. Rolling.

COLLEEN: Yeah, we are literally rolling!

SUE: We have a story that combines...

COLLEEN: ...engineering brilliance...

SUE: ...NASA pajamas -- more on that later --

COLLEEN: And a $3,000 innovative sports device that gives people with disabilities a new sense of freedom.

SUE: For this “Good on the Ground” podcast, we headed to Boston...

TISH: I’m Tish Scolnik, co-founder of Grit.

SUE: ...to speak with a 28-year-old entrepreneur who is reinventing the wheelchair.

COLLEEN: If you like stories about people using the power of business to tackle social issues, keep on listening.

*Musical Interlude*

TISH: Our Freedom Chair is specially designed to help users travel on really rough terrain, whether that’s a hiking trail, or through thick grass, or on the beach.

SOT: Yeah!

SUE: Our story begins on the campuses of MIT -- the Massachusetts Institute of .

COLLEEN: Where exceptionally brainy people go to college.

TISH: There are so many big problems that the world’s facing and, you know, many of them can’t be solved by engineering, but many of them can. There are millions of people that could benefit from a product like ours.

SUE: Tish is a graduate of MIT. She began her studies there 10 years ago...

COLLEEN: ...thinking she’d study pre-med. But then...

TISH: The spring semester of my freshman year I had stumbled on an ad for a class called “Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries” and I thought, “Well, it’s got the wheelchair part. That’s kind of the medicine that I’m interested in.”

COLLEEN: Tish, by the way, is not in a wheelchair -- she just found the topic intriguing.

SUE: As a child, she traveled a lot with her parents -- so she was drawn to the idea of working on problems outside the U.S.

TISH: And that same semester I was also taking organic chemistry and I found myself totally disinterested in orgo and really racing to be on time to the wheelchair class every time, every day.

COLLEEN: Her professor had just come back from East Africa, where he had researched wheelchair use.

TISH: So my group in particular was partnered with a small wheelchair workshop in Tanzania, in East Africa, and we would Skype with them and e-mail with them to learn about the problems they were facing and to try to provide whatever sort of help we could with our, our basic engineering skills.

SOT: What is the torque spec on this?

COLLEEN: Tish spent the next summer working in Tanzania, learning how people use the wheelchairs.

TISH: People needed to go really long distances to get to work or to school, oftentimes in rural areas. Then when they got to work, or school, or the office they needed to be able to go indoors and still be maneuverable. And then on top of that, they needed something that, that they could actually repair and maintain in the long term.

SUE: In Africa, the team found that generous people donated wheelchairs.

COLLEEN: But as soon as those chairs broke down, and no spare parts were available, they were discarded.

SUE: Tish’s team wanted to reinvent the wheelchair.

TISH: The key innovation behind the Freedom Chair is the way you push it. So a regular wheelchair is propelled by grabbing onto the wheels and pushing those forward. It’s great for small spaces, for flat surfaces, tight maneuverability, but it’s really exhausting on long distances and on rough terrain. The Freedom Chair uses a lever system.

SOT: Actuating correctly.
-Check.

TISH: When you push the levers forward there’s a chain drive that turns the wheels forward. The levers give you a lot more leverage so it’s easier to push.

COLLEEN: So, just to paint a picture here, the levers sort of look like those batons that relay runners carry -- you sit in the chair, with these vertical batons in your hands, which are attached to the wheels, and then you push them forward.

SUE: Yes, it’s a cool trick of physics. The levers amplify the force that you’re putting into the chair...

TISH: ...to make it easier to push over rough terrain. So you can get out and explore the outdoors and move beyond the pavement.

COLLEEN: And then they addressed this huge issue of repairing the chairs.

TISH: The need to be able to repair it locally was, was really clear to us. So all of the moving parts are standard bicycle parts, the wheels, all the bearings, all the rolling elements.

SUE: That’s really simple -- and brilliant.

COLLEEN: It is -- their approach is very different than many wheelchair companies, which manufacture their own replacement parts and actually make recurring revenue off them.

SUE: Tish spent the rest of her time at MIT developing the chair, and in 2012, two years after graduation, she incorporated GRIT with classmates Mario Bollini and Ben Judge and her professor, Amos Winter.

*Musical Interlude*

COLLEEN: We’ve been sharing the story of Tish Scolnik, who began GRIT while still a student at MIT. The company has now distributed about 2,000 Freedom wheelchairs to 20 developing countries and is now turning its attention to the U.S. market.

SUE: Her story’s remarkable -- even more remarkable when you think it might not have happened at all.

COLLEEN: Yeah, that’s right...we’re going to briefly revisit an issue that we covered last year in our “Women in Tech” podcast, which you can find on our website...

SUE: www.TheStoryExchange.org.

COLLEEN: And, you know, earlier in this podcast, we talked about those exceptionally brainy students that attend MIT.

SUE: Ah, yes. Those nerdy guys with glasses and pocket protectors...

COLLEEN: Yes, those guys who are computer whizzes...

SUE: Those guys who are coding geniuses who are going to start the next Facebook or Twitter...

COLLEEN: Have, have we run out of stereotypes yet?

SUE: I think listeners get the idea.

COLLEEN: Yeah. What we’re trying to say, if it’s not abundantly clear, is that society has sort of a preconceived notion of what type of person goes to a prestigious engineering school.

SUE: And it’s usually a guy, albeit a socially awkward one.

COLLEEN: Yeah, it’s not typically an extroverted young woman -- which is exactly what Tish was in high school.

TISH: Growing up I played a lot of sports -- tennis, soccer, softball, basketball -- I also was class President all through high school and helped plan my senior prom.

COLLEEN: At the same time...

TISH: I’d always been good at math and science. Those were the subjects that I excelled in and the subjects that I enjoyed the most.

SUE: Her father, actually, drove her to MIT for a campus visit. He was impressed that the college had just hired its first female president.

TISH: And we came and, and toured MIT and I, I sort of remember actually that I didn’t want to get out of the car when we got there. I think I just had that terrible stereotype that it would be full of nerds and that I wouldn’t fit in.

SUE: When we spoke to Tish at GRIT’s office in Boston, she told us that she’d actually tried to keep it under wraps in high school that she was a member of the Science Olympiad.

TISH: I remember that after we won this, this big event at the state level science Olympiad they made an announcement from the morning announcements and they named all the team members. And I remember being like, slightly mortified for a few minutes that my name had been announced.

SUE (from tape): That just goes to show how this whole problem of getting young girls and women into science --

TISH: Yes.

SUE: -- how that permeated you as a teenager. That’s incredible.

TISH: Yup. Yeah. My senior year, the coach of the science Olympiad team started a new class in the science department called “An Introduction to Engineering,” and I thought, “Well, that sounds interesting. I’m curious about it. I’m pretty good at science.” When I signed up I was the only girl in the class.

SUE: It’s no secret that the STEM fields -- the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- are dominated by men.

COLLEEN: And as we’ve talked about on this podcast before, research suggests that society places a subtle but strong pressure on young girls to choose more “feminine” areas like the humanities, instead of the more “masculine” fields like STEM.

SUE: And Tish wasn’t immune to that pressure. Which takes us back to her not wanting to get out of the car at MIT.

TISH: I’m so embarrassed remembering it.

COLLEEN: Fortunately, she had some encouragement.

TISH: We sat in an info session and I was totally mesmerized by the young woman who was giving it. She talked about all of the activities she did on campus. She talked about her NASA pajamas that she was so excited to, to proudly put on at night with her, her sorority sisters, and there was just something really special about how excited she was about everything she was doing.

SUE: I don’t even know what NASA pajamas look like, but clearly this impressed Tish!

COLLEEN: It did. And of course, studies have suggested that social encouragement is one of the best ways to get more girls into the STEM fields.

SUE: And that girls, in particular, need female role models.

COLLEEN: That’s right. These days, Tish isn’t worried about what people think.

TISH: Now I have no problem letting that nerd flag fly freely.

SUE: But she’s doing her part to give back, and get more young women into engineering so they can tackle world problems.

TISH: My mom and I have been developing together a STEM book for girls aimed at middle school girls trying to get them more excited about science and engineering, and also trying to offer some role models. I want to inspire more young women, young girls to, to go into these fields, because we need you.

*Musical Interlude*

TISH: When we started GRIT, all of us mechanical engineers, there were a lot of things we had to learn.

COLLEEN: So let’s get back to how Tish and her team have turned an MIT class project into a company.

TISH: Being a startup we all have to wear a lot of hats and there are a lot of skills we had to pick up on the fly from accounting, to finance, to patent law, to sales and marketing.

COLLEEN: Initially, they set out to design an that would help riders navigate the rough ground in developing countries.

TISH: And so we started working with a contract manufacturer in India and distributing the product through a network of eight agencies and NGOs around the world.

COLLEEN: But then, a surprising thing happened.

TISH: We started hearing from wheelchair riders here in the United States who said, “We have parks and trails that we want to go through. We have sidewalks with potholes. We have challenging places we want to go and we want something that’s rugged and easy to repair, too.”

SOT: Let’s try this out.
-I wonder if there is something from the side that could --
-From the side, like kind of a sidecar.
-But then still be able to get between trees...

COLLEEN: The GRIT team redesigned the Freedom chair for the U.S. market, and they did a lot of research on this.

SOT: All right, you want to try some, let’s try some of this mulch.
-Yeah so, I mean, this is the terrain that the chair really thrives on.

SUE: One thing that kept coming up is that the that the original product overseas is completely rigid.

TISH: Here in the United States people quickly told us they wanted something that they could easily stow in the trunk of a car. And so we redesigned the product so that a couple of push buttons and snaps here and there and the whole chair disassembles in under a minute.

COLLEEN: They launched the new Freedom Chair in the U.S. at the end of 2014, with a Kickstarter campaign.

TISH: Our goal was set at $50,000 and we raised just about $80,000 and had about 25 or so preorders that made us feel more confident moving into the manufacturing. It’s entirely manufactured here in the United States, working with a great network of manufacturing partners mostly around New England.

SUE: What strikes me is that GRIT is a small company but they have a big potential market.

COLLEEN: Yeah, that’s exactly right. There are more than 3 million wheelchair users in this country.

TISH: Over 11,000,000 Americans use some other type of assistive walking aid, possibly crutches, or a walker, or a cane. These are individuals who are quite mobile within their home but maybe don’t spend a lot of time outdoors, or if they do spend time outdoors they’re often being assisted by a friend or family member.

COLLEEN: In terms of pricing, GRIT sells its Freedom Chair direct to consumer for $2,995.

SUE: Which sounds like a lot, but it’s actually less than half the price of its closest competitors.

COLLEEN: Right, although it’s different than a regular wheelchair.

TISH: It’s a sports device that’s not covered by insurance. People are purchasing it out of pocket similar to a hand cycle that you might see somebody racing in the marathon in.

COLLEEN: And the audience is different, too.

TISH: Our customers here in the U.S. really run the gamut, you know, from the young individual who had a mountain biking accident to the older grandmother who has MS that wants to get outside with her grandkids.

SOT: Better coming down...I’ll look like a pro...

COLLEEN: GRIT has sold about 200 chairs in the U.S., and won a contract with the Veterans Administration to supply the chair to vets.

SUE: Meanwhile, GRIT has also secured $200,000 in grants -- including a big one from MIT -- and they’ve raised a seed round from angel investors.

COLLEEN: Although Tish says they’re not quite ready for someone else to run the business...

TISH: We’ve put our blood, sweat, and tears into it. We know how every part works.

COLLEEN: ...but perhaps in a few years, they’d consider selling GRIT to a bigger company, maybe one that already has distributions systems in place.

SUE: Until then, they’ll keep doing the work they’re doing, for wheelchair riders the world over.

TISH: They’re riding in parks, and on hiking trails, and they’re also riding at the beach. They’re leaving their own footprints in the sand when the tire tracks are, are left behind. Really, at the end of the day that’s what makes us want to keep doing this, is seeing that, that impact firsthand.

COLLEEN: We thank Tish Scolnik for sharing her story with us.

SUE: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange.

COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.

Posted: June 13, 2017

The Story ExchangeEp.20: Reinventing the Wheelchair