CEO and Co-founder Rimas Buinevicius holds and
explains the inner workings of the company's
innovative wheelchair wheel inside their development
and production space in Fitchburg, Wis., on Jan. 28,
— Take a Madison entrepreneur, put him in a situation
outside his comfort zone, and just watch him figure out a
novel way to approach it.
led to the creation of Rowheels, a Fitchburg company rolling
out its invention: Rev1, a new type of wheels for manually
is instead of pushing the wheels forward to move forward,
the wheelchair occupant pulls Rev1 wheels back, toward the
body, to move forward — similar to the motion involved in
rowing a boat.
of a strain on the shoulders, arms and upper body, said
Rowheels chief executive Rimas Buinevicius.
has merit, said David Maiers, manager of the inpatient
rehabilitation unit therapy team at University of Wisconsin
not seen the Rev1 but he said, "The concepts on which
it's based would make sense to me."
years of refining the design, sourcing parts and testing
prototypes, Rowheels is now manufacturing and shipping its
first products. They are not wheelchairs, but rather, a set
of wheels to retrofit a variety of chair designs and sizes,
think there's a pretty big vision on where this could
go," said Buinevicius, who led the Madison publicly
traded streaming company Sonic Foundry for more than a dozen
prototype manager Brandon Norsted assembles components
of the company's new wheelchair wheel inside their
development and production space in Fitchburg, Wis.,
on Jan. 28, 2015.
Could it be
a game-changer for the manual wheelchair industry worldwide,
estimated by WinterGreen Research to reach $2.9 billion by
2018? "Oh, absolutely," Buinevicius said.
a classic example of local companies working together.
assembles its counter-rotating hubs by hand and drives them
less than a mile away, down McKee Road (Highway PD) to Saris
Cycling Group, 5253 Verona Road, also in Fitchburg.
the spokes, wheels, tires and tubes. Then the wheels go back
to Rowheels where they are fitted with a custom hand rim and
which has made bicycle racks for 40 years — the first 15
as Graber Products — the Rowheels work will "fill in
nicely" with its own product lines that focus on
parking and vehicle racks for the summer and stationary
bikes for the winter, said Jason Seefeldt, manufacturing
employees insert spokes into the hub manually, and machines
bolt the spokes into the rim and tighten them. Then rubber
tires are fitted on, and the wheels head back over to
Rowheels, where a custom hand rim, axle and hubcap are
housed in the Renascence Manufacturing building, 2895
Commerce Park Drive, sort of an advanced manufacturing hub
set up in 2010 by Jeff Jenkins, who ran his own contract
manufacturing firm, Jenkins Research and Manufacturing, at
the location for 20-plus years.
Rowheels' components come from Wisconsin companies, such as
the gears from Kleiss Gears, Grantsburg, which are embedded
in the hubs, and hubcaps and other plastic parts from OMP
(Oconomowoc Molded Products).
Product Development, Sun Prairie, helped with Rowheels'
always felt, from the beginning, that Wisconsin would be a
perfect place for this. There's so much expertise in the
cycling industry with (bicycle maker) Trek (in Waterloo) and
(motorcycle company) Harley-Davidson. We're dealing with
suppliers for Harley-Davidson in the Milwaukee area. That
know-how in Wisconsin shouldn't be underestimated,"
Buinevicius told the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/1zLSOa1
prototype manager Brandon Norsted attaches the
company's new wheelchair wheel to a frame inside their
development and production space in Fitchburg, Wis.,
on Jan. 28, 2015.
idea for a new way to maneuver a wheelchair was hatched from
an accident in 2011.
was in a sailboat in the middle of Lake Michigan, practicing
for a sailing race, when he went down to the lower deck,
slipped on some lines and broke his leg. He maneuvered
around in a wheelchair for eight weeks — the kind of
manual wheelchair that's self-piloted, by pushing forward on
the wheels to go forward.
two days of doing that, my shoulders were aching, my triceps
were hurting," Buinevicius said. He figured there had
to be a better way.
search led him to Salim Nasser, a NASA space engineer who
had been in a wheelchair for 15 years after a car crash in
his native Colombia left him partially paralyzed. Nasser had
worked on a project with reverse gears for his mechanical
engineering master's degree. At NASA, for a design
competition held by the agency, Nasser built a prototype
wheelchair that moved forward by pulling back on the wheels.
after, Buinevicius found the design online and became
partners with Nasser; Rowheels began in 2012.
was to make the wheels as lightweight as possible, so a
magnesium alloy — 25 percent lighter than aluminum — is
used for the Rev1 structure, Buinevicius said.
also wanted to offer a better way to stop a wheelchair
rolling downhill. Now, the chair's occupant has to grab the
wheels by hand, which can demand quick action and
Fitchburg company added a triple brake pad system on each
wheel, like a car's disc brakes, so the user just has to
press the rims against the wheels to stop.
was a big feature that we didn't appreciate until we started
showing at trade shows," Buinevicius said. He said
people in wheelchairs noticed it instantly and were excited
received a patent for its Rev1 wheel design in January.
Hospitals' Maiers said the mechanics of pushing a standard
wheelchair can cause physical strain. "Our arms and
upper body didn't evolve to do that task. They tend to
overdevelop certain muscles and overstretch certain
others," resulting in problems such as tendinitis or
rotator cuff tears, said Maiers, who has heard about the
Rev1 but has not seen it demonstrated.
product uses the opposite muscle motion to try to make the
wheels move," he said. "As a therapist who works
with individuals who use wheelchairs, I can see how ... (the
Rev1) could alleviate some of the problem," Maiers
though, long-term wheelchair users might be more apt to
choose a specialized product like the Rev1 than those with
the first project of Madcelerator, a business development
and capital raising firm that consists of Buinevicius; his
wife, Jan Moen; and Brad Reinke, who worked with Buinevicius
at Sonic Foundry. When a division of Sony Corp. bought Sonic
Foundry's music and video creation software in 2003, Reinke
led the operation, later called Sony Creative Software,
serving as senior vice president for a decade.
is advising and investing in several other startups,
want to help entrepreneurs who need a way to accelerate
their businesses and bring in a seasoned team," he
Rowheels has raised about $1 million, including funds from
angel investors, to move the Rev1 forward. The company got
some glory, early on, when it won the Wisconsin Governor's
Business Plan Contest in 2012 and then took the prize for
best innovation in the New York Venture Summit's life
sciences category in June 2014.
has four employees — in addition to the Madcelerator trio
— including a national sales manager in Ann Arbor,
Michigan. Reinke said independent sales representatives are
being hired to market the Rev1, primarily to rehabilitation
hospitals and clinics right now, Reinke said.
He said he
hopes the company will have 10 to 15 sales reps by this
custom-made to fit a variety of frame sizes, are designed to
tilt inward slightly.
now, our initial market is going to be the higher-end, primo
type of product that really appeals to strong paraplegics,
wheelchair athletes and veterans in the Veterans
Administration system," Buinevicius said.
He said the
Rev1 wheels could also be used as an exercise device, for
example, to strengthen the shoulders of people with rotator
cuff injuries, or for people with spinal cord injuries,
multiple sclerosis or stroke patients.
haven't built these to be sport chairs but that could be in
the future," Buinevicius said.
A set of
Rev1 wheels costs $5,400 but Medicare, which already has
approved the device for reimbursement, will cover a big
share of that, he said.
Rev1 is not
likely to become an instant blockbuster, Buinevicius said,
but he thinks it will gain momentum as more therapists,
physicians and wheelchair users try it.
claiming it's a safer way to propel — that's the real
game-changer for us," he said. "It's being
recognized as a novel thing that should have been invented a
long time ago."