Tish Scolnik: Engineering Freedom for Wheelchair Users

Like many young women, Tish Scolnik initially rejected engineering as “nerdy." Now her Boston startup, GRIT, designs Freedom Chair — an all-terrain wheelchair bringing increased mobility to the disabled.

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Tish Skolnik – CEO – GRIT – Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

TISH: Here at GRIT we’re making the mountain bike of wheelchairs.

SOT: Yeah!

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.

TEXT: Tish Skolnik – CEO + Co-Founder – GRIT – Cambridge, Mass., USA

TISH: There are so many big problems that the world’s facing and 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.

SOT: It’s nice to be able to just change direction and go where you want.

TEXT: Tish grew up in Westchester, New York. Her parents ran their own graphic design company.

TISH: It was actually, uh, pretty fortuitous for me growing up having both a working mom and a working dad, uh, and seeing them running their own business. I guess it always kind of seemed like I could do this. I could run my own company.

TISH: I’d always been good at math and science. My dad was the one who wanted me to look at MIT. We came and toured MIT and I remember that I didn’t wanna get out of the car. I think I just had that terrible stereotype that it would be full of...nerds and that I wouldn’t fit in. I don't know what I was thinking. Now I have no problem letting that nerd flag fly freely.

TEXT: Tish planned to study pre-med at MIT.

TEXT: But during her first year, she also signed up for a class called “Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries.”

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

TISH: My group was partnered with a small wheelchair workshop in Tanzania in East Africa and we would Skype and email with them and try to provide whatever sort of help we could with our, our basic engineering skills.

TEXT: Tish spent the next summer working in Tanzania at the workshop.

TISH: People needed to go really long distances to get to work or to school, oftentimes in rural areas. When they got to work, or school, or the office they needed to be able to go indoors and still be maneuverable. And they needed something that, that they could actually repair and maintain in the long term. And so all of the moving parts are standard bicycle parts. The need to be able to repair it locally was really clear to us.

TEXT: All through college, Tish worked on the design with fellow students Mario Bellini, Ben Judge and their teacher Amos Winter.

TISH: The key innovation behind the Chair is the way you push it. So a regular wheelchair is propelled by grabbing onto the wheels and pushing those forward. The Freedom Chair uses a lever system.

SOT: Actuating correctly.

TISH: The levers give you a lot more leverage so it’s easier to push.

TEXT: In 2011, a year after graduating from MIT, Tish decided to make the chair as her full-time career. In 2012 she set up GRIT with Amos, Mario and Ben.

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

TEXT: The biggest challenge was money. Tish and Mario pursued grants, prizes, Kickstarter campaigns and investment funding.

TISH: We started working with a manufacturer in India and distributing the product through agencies and NGOs around the world, to date, about 2,000 chairs in almost 20 countries. While that was happening we started hearing from wheelchair riders here in the United States who said, “We want something that’s rugged and easy to repair, too.”

TEXT: The team redesigned the chair for the American market. They made it easy to fold and put in a car.

TEXT: It is sold direct to consumers for $2995, which is less than half the price of their closest competitors.

TISH: As a small team with limited resources being pulled in so many different directions it’s really hard. We’re talking to folks that we might be able to, to partner with overseas to help grow that work. And also we really wanna put the time and effort into growing what we’re doing here in the US.

TEXT: GRIT has sold more than 200 chairs to US customers and landed a contract with the Veterans Administration for more.

SOT: Then we have that trail ride with the VA. See how, how this trail, what this trail is like and maybe it’s time we add it to our accessible trail series.

TEXT: Tish and her colleagues now take small salaries.

TISH: Our riders, they’re all over. They’re leaving their own footprints in the sand when the tire tracks are, are left behind. That’s what makes us wanna keep doing this is, is hearing those stories and seeing that, that impact firsthand.

Posted: February 14, 2017

Nusha Balyan at The Story ExchangeTish Scolnik: Engineering Freedom for Wheelchair Users