US army veterans can now get a smoother ride on their wheelchairs thanks to technology developed by a Tel Aviv-based startup that is giving a high-tech twist to the wheel.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs has already approved the supply of some 361 wheelchairs outfitted with wheels developed by SoftWheel, which have a flexible shock absorption system built into the wheel itself, allowing for better stability and a smoother ride without sacrificing speed. Some 1,639 additional wheelchairs will soon make their way to other US veterans, as part of a deal between a VA-approved manufacturer of wheelchairs and SoftWheel, to supply 2,000 sets of shock-absorbing wheels over a period of three years.
This is the largest deal to date for the Tel Aviv firm, said Hanit Marinov, the head of marketing and sales at SoftWheel. The firm, which was set up in 2011, employs 34 workers and has production facilities in Haifa and in Canada.
Each set of wheels costs $2,500, and the US Veterans Affairs will fully reimburse the expense, she explained. The deal was struck with Ki Mobility, a wheelchair manufacturer that produces the chairs for the VA, she explained.
SoftWheel also supplies its wheels to the biggest wheelchair distributor in the US, Numotion, a wheelchair and mobility equipment company, which has been acquiring hundreds of pairs of wheels a year, Marinov said. The company also supplies its wheels to Germany, where the government has approved the reimbursement of SoftWheel products, and to the UK market,
Generally, only very high-end wheelchairs have shock absorption built in. This gets built onto the frame of the chair, making it heavier and more expensive, said Marinov. The SoftWheel solution fits onto any chair.
“When you sit for hours on a wheelchair, any small bump is amplified, whether you are on cobblestones, or going onto a curb or moving levels in a room,” she said. “Our system absorbs the bumps, and helps with backache and shoulder and neck pain.”
SoftWheel’s core innovation is based on three suspension arms built inside the wheel rim, which absorb shocks from any direction. The company’s patented technology keeps the three arms rigid and strong, like spokes, until they encounter an obstacle. At that point, they automatically compress, to absorb the shock. After the impact, the suspension arms reset quickly and are ready to go again.
“Our suspension system is a cross category, meaning it can work for wheelchairs but can also be used for bikes or cars,” said Marinov. “For each category the benefits are different.”
At the moment the company has sales and revenues only from the wheelchair suspension system, she said. The company is working on its product for bikes — it is in the pilot stage of the development — and is in the research and development stage of a product for cars.