Solving Problems Kim Lachance Shandrow  | April 21, 2017

This Startup Builds Rugged, All-Terrain Wheelchairs for Disabled Adventurers

While attending MIT, Tish Scolnik traveled to East Africa on a class trip to work in a mom-and-pop wheelchair shop at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“We worked with local manufacturers who were making wheelchairs that were improved for the terrain, having observed the failure of basic, barebones wheelchairs, similar to the kind you’d see in most hospitals,” Scolnik tells Free Enterprise.

“I saw people who couldn’t go to school or get a job because they couldn’t leave the house,” she says. “I was really fired up, sure that there had to be a way to make a better wheelchair.”

So she set out to build one — a better, more rugged wheelchair that stands up to the rigors of all types of terrain.

Eight years of research and design later, and after building her all-terrain wheelchair concept into a startup at MIT, Scolnik is now manufacturing what she aptly calls the Freedom Chair.

Today, the mechanical engineer is the creative millennial entrepreneur behind Global Research Innovation and Technology, known more commonly by its all-too-appropriate acronym. GRIT, the MIT graduate’s small but growing Boston-based social enterprise.

She co-founded the company in 2012 with fellow MIT researchers Mario Bollini, Ben Judge and Amos Winter. Together they build unique, lever-powered wheelchairs, remarkably sturdy assistive rides that Scolnik describes as “mountain bikes for your arms.”

Scolnik, a former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services health policy analyst, logged many long days and nights in the R&D trenches alongside her team, “rigorously engineering” what they claim is the most versatile all-terrain wheelchair on the market.

During the design process, which was mostly carried out at MIT’s state-of-the-art Mobility Lab, Scolnik and her colleagues burned through dozens of prototypes, continuously tweaking and refining the Freedom Chair, with ongoing input from hundreds of local wheelchair users and outdoor enthusiasts.

The end result is an innovative, wonderfully functional testament to personal freedom and mobility.

“It features everything wheelchair riders need to move beyond the pavement,” Scolnik tells Free Enterprise. “We believe in a stakeholder-driven design process, where the people who use a technology help to design it. We are able to help people with disabilities get off-road and on with their lives.”

We recently caught up with Scolnik to learn more about her inspiring entrepreneurial journey, and about the groundbreaking wheelchair she helped pioneer. Here’s what we found out:

What drives you to create a product that truly opens up paths to freedom for individuals with disabilities?

“At the core of our business is our mission to improve people’s lives. We’re social entrepreneurs who are dedicated through our enterprise to empowering people with disabilities. We’re passionate about designing technology that helps them overcome obstacles that prevent them from living the life they want to lead. We use a rider-focused design process, engaging potential customers throughout the design process to create products that actually meet their needs.”

How does GRIT help riders “move beyond the pavement,” in which specific environments and how?

“Existing wheelchairs are exhausting and often impossible to propel off-road, leaving people with disabilities on the sidelines. They want to lead normal lives and not be limited by their mobility aids. In particular, our customers want to explore parks, beaches and trails, and enjoy activities with friends and family but are unable to do so. This results in a low quality of life and poor health outcomes due to lack of exercise.

With its unique, patented lever-powered drivetrain design and pneumatic mountain bike wheels, the Freedom Chair lets riders move freely across all types of rugged terrain. It’s the mountain bike of wheelchairs.

The lever drive gives riders the leverage to handle any terrain, and every moving part is an off-the-shelf bike part for easy maintenance and infinite customization. The quick release frame fits in the trunk of a small car, making it easy to get to the trail. With the Freedom Chair, people with disabilities can go hiking, camping, to the beach and more, improving their quality of life.”

Why did the name GRIT stick, and what does it mean to you?

“Our customers have a lot of GRIT, and so do we! Also, we named the product the Freedom Chair because it gives individuals the freedom to get off the pavement.”

How did you transition from painstakingly perfecting a really cool and incredibly useful wheelchair in an academic research setting to building a successful business around it?

“Following years of research and development, and after wrapping up our last field trial, we were ready to focus on manufacturing and distribution. That’s when my MIT colleagues and I co-founded GRIT together. Our mechanical engineering skills had gotten us through the product development phase, but we knew that we needed help to actually launch the company, so we entered a local business accelerator called MassChallenge. After six months of guidance and mentorship that helped us kick off the company, we ultimately won one of the accelerator’s top prizes, which allowed us to keep moving forward.”

How did you initially fund your startup?

“At first, we launched with funds from winning the MassChallenge competition, and from a grant from the MIT D-Lab Scale-Ups Program. From there, we bootstrapped the business ourselves for as long as we could. We later launched the Freedom Chair on Kickstarter, using the crowdfunding platform to collect pre-orders prior to manufacturing. Since then, we have raised money from local angel investors. All in all, we did the best we could with the resources we had!”

Can you tell us about how you came to provide Freedom Chairs to disabled veterans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs?

“We applied for a contract from the V.A. After a year of back-and-forth and detailed review, the Freedom Chair is now an approved item on the Federal Supply Schedule (FSS), which means that they will cover the full cost for qualified veterans.”

What does it mean to you to be a for-profit with a purpose, to change the world for the better through your venture?

“The more we grow as a company, the more people we serve, and the more lives we can improve.

More specifically, our first Freedom Chairs were shipped to customers in the U.S. in May, 2015, and they’ve continued from there. Additionally, we work with several great manufacturers around the country, including in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Ohio and more. We do all the final assembly in our office in Boston, and each Freedom Chair ships direct from us.”

What’s next for GRIT?

“As engineers, we’ve always got product development ideas! And we’re getting great feedback from our customers that has allowed us to launch a line of accessories, so people can further customize the Freedom Chair to their specific needs. Looking to hit the beach? We’ve got special wheels for that. Want to carry some extra gear with you? We’ve got a special trail bag for that.”

What’s your top piece of advice for entrepreneurs who, like you, desire to positively impact people’s lives through enterprise?

“One thing: Listen to your customers.”