MechSE alumnus aims for entrepreneurial success with IntelliWheels
Scott Daigle (BSME ’09, MSME ’11), IntelliWheels co-founder and CEO walks on screen to challenge George’s strength.
“Impressive, huh?” he asks the viewers. “Actually it’s not that impressive. Josh is using a set of wheels called the IntelliWheels Easy Push. These wheels have a 2-to-1 gear ratio, which makes it twice as easy to push, even when pulling a car. Josh may tell himself he’s a strong man, but actually, it’s just a mechanical advantage.”
Intelliwheels, a 2010 startup company, sells geared wheels to ease a wheelchair user’s ability to push a wheelchair. The startup is comprised of three members: Daigle; George, the director of public relations; and Marissa Siebel, co-founder and vice president of marketing. On February 26, Daigle led an ME 390 lecture to detail the beginnings of IntelliWheels and inspire engineering entrepreneurs.
The idea to build an easy-to-push wheelchair originated when Daigle, as a MechSE student, observed wheelchair users on campus and wondered if he could make their lives easier.
“This is a wheeled vehicle and any vehicle with wheels has gears on it to optimize it. I wanted to optimize a wheelchair,” Daigle said.
Once he formulated the idea, he downloaded SolidWorks and began working on a design for his first prototype of the improved wheelchair. His first take on a simplified wheelchair featured a continually varying transmission, or a CVT, which can switch between an infinite number of gears.
“I was going to put a CVT in a manual wheelchair, and I thought this was going to be the coolest thing ever,” Daigle said. “I wanted it to automatically shift into the correct gear. I wanted the user to never have to think about what gear they were going to be in.”
Although Daigle felt as though the project was a failure at the time, he was pleasantly surprised when he took the prototype to the campus’ Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) and received constructive feedback.
“Resoundingly, we got the feedback: it’s too big, too bulky, too heavy,” Daigle said. “But, the wonderful thing about this is if we had never built that prototype, we never would have gotten the chance to get that kind of feedback.”
He acknowledged that the trial and error process is crucial to making functional products.
“You think you have the best idea in the world,” Daigle said. “You go ahead and create it and it’s nothing like people would want.”
His solution was to try again and spring back with a better prototype after every feedback round.
As Daigle embarked on his next prototype, George and Siebel joined IntelliWheels. They made a pretty good team, he said.
“We can each specialize; we each do what we do best,” Daigle said. “I don’t have to know everything about sales and marketing and they don’t have to know everything about engineering.”
Around this time, IntelliWheels also entered competitions as a creative way to fund the material, travel, and machining expenses. In turn, the startup’s winnings included $20,000 from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) in 2010 and $30,000 from the Lemelson-MIT Illinois Prize in 2011.
The company’s second prototype featured three gears, as opposed to an infinite number. The wheelchair shifted between the three gears on its own, so Daigle and his team dubbed it the IntelliWheels Automatic Gear Shift (AGS). When they took the wheelchair out for user evaluations, they received positive assessments.
“We got feedback from wheelchair users who said, ‘Hey, this is really something that we could see using.’ It was the right shape, size, and we think we are going in the right direction,” Daigle said.
With leftover funding, the startup built its third wheelchair, which turned out to be the “simplest iteration of the idea yet,” Daigle said. They produced a fleet of 10 prototypes with one gear and dropped them off in assisted living facilities to receive feedback from wheelchair users.
Next, IntelliWheels sought venture capital for its innovative product.
“We were on the road all the time. We were networking with as many people as we could, just trying to meet, trying to get the idea out there,” Daigle said. “We finally got funding, though it took a long time, and then came the fun part: product development.”
IntelliWheels ordered 100 gears and began assembling their wheelchairs known as the Easy Push, which feature a pair of 2-to-1 ratio gear wheels weighing 10 pounds each. The startup’s second product is recent and available locally: IntelliWheels X2 are the gears, sold separately and installed on wheelchairs by retailers.
Daigle left aspiring innovators in ME 390 with a word of advice: “Trying to start your own company… it’s a process,” Daigle said. “You need to be able to learn a lot of different things. But as an engineer you have everything in your toolbox to be a successful entrepreneur.”