January 10, 2015
In July 2014 WHILL successfully closed a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the development of their personal mobility devices. From then on they remained relatively silent until founder Satoshi Sugie reached out to me to let us know they would be demoing at The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES ) this year.
That’s right, CES 2015 saw an all-directional, four-wheel drive personal mobility device being displayed. If they look like wheelchairs, that’s because WHILL was partially inspired by the wheelchair, but it was built for people who want more mobility.
Take, for example, the front wheels on a normal wheelchair: they’re small and allow for a good turning radius, but they’re helpless against larger cracks or bumps in the road. Sugie and his team specifically designed a new front wheel that achieves amazing ground coverage while still allowing for tight turns.
Naturally, we sat down with Sugie to hear more about the inspiration and journey of the WHILL personal mobility device.
Tech Cocktail: Where did the idea come from?
Satoshi Sugie: I met one wheelchair user who said: “I gave up going to the store even just two blocks away”. He didn’t want to be seen as a ‘wheelchair user’. There was also the physical limitation of slopes and cracks along the way, and it was very difficult for him to reach his destination.
At that time we had a small engineering team called Sunnyside garage in Machida City, a suburb of Tokyo. We were young engineers and designers all in our late 20s, who got together on the weekends to create new things just for fun.
We made a bunch of products back then. We only wanted to create products that can solve social problems outside of our daily work. And WHILL happened to be one of these projects.
So, after one year of development, we exhibited at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2011. We got a lot of reaction from the all over the globe, and only then did I realize that a lot of people desire innovation in this industry.
Tech Cocktail: How are you measuring up against competition in this market sector?
Sugie: First, our design is human-centric. We’re always thinking about products from the user’s perspective. I have firsthand experience in that point of view too as I lived for two months in a powered wheelchair myself.
But another way we’re distinguishing WHILL is through psychology. We’re creating the next personal mobility device, not a wheelchair. It shouldn’t look like a conventional wheelchair, because people are turned off to the traditional wheelchair.
Throughout it all our team has been awesome. We’ve got people from SONY, Toyota, Honda, NISSAN, Google, and Olympus; we can create new kinds of mobility that people have never seen before.
Tech Cocktail: What are your goals for the future?
Sugie: Needless to say we are facing an aging society not only in the US and Japan, but throughout most of the developed world: 25 percent of people in Japan are over 65. There’s a need for new methods of transportation. We want to provide our mobility in exciting styles like you would a new bike.
Specifically though, I’m thinking about collaborating with senior communities and other B2B opportunities such as Airport, amusement parks, museums, and hotels. We also want to create a brand for our WHILL Model A that’s unlike any of the existing imagery surrounding mobility.
Disclosure: The VegasTechFund, part of the Downtown Project, has invested in WHILL. Tech.Co is funded by the Downtown Project.
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