A San Antonio startup is bringing a powered accessory to the market that addresses a common issue for the more than 3.3 million Americans who use a wheelchair. Soul Mobility is producing an innovative powered wheelchair attachment that can easily convert a manual wheelchair into a powered one, making navigating long distances easier for users.
Soul Mobility founder and CEO Todd Hargroder broke his neck in a motorcycle accident when he was 19. He worked hard to build strength to use his manual wheelchair but still found it tiring to use on uneven surfaces, long distances, or hilly terrain, especially as he aged.
“It takes time and practice to master this skill [using a manual wheelchair],” Hargroder said. “Plus, you need good upper body strength and stamina to propel yourself in a manual wheelchair, especially over long distances and up hills.”
A manual wheelchair can be the best choice for those with enough upper-body power to propel the wheelchair. In contrast, a powered one helps those needing full-time mobility assistance but lacking the physical strength to propel a manual wheelchair.
However, insurance often will reimburse for only one wheelchair, forcing people to choose between a manual or a powered wheelchair. Some select a manual chair because it is portable, cost-effective, and foldable for easy transport. Manual wheelchairs are also less expensive and have low maintenance costs, making them more affordable.
This dilemma led Hargroder to invent the Power-Flex power-based attachment that converts all types of manual wheelchairs into a powered one in under thirty seconds without tools or frame adapters. Hargroder can now switch between manual and power, using his invention for powered mobility when needed.
“The Power-Flex will allow pediatric and adult manual wheelchair users a 2-in-1 design providing the flexibility to either push their lightweight manual chair or go full power in a compact joystick-driven power chair when they choose,” Hargroder said. “The Soul Mobility platform transforms the wheelchair into a powered one that’s at the same height as when it’s manual, so you don’t need to change anything in your home.
“This patented design gives users the flexibility to do either manual or powered without buying two wheelchairs.”
Frustration leads to innovation
Throughout Hargroder’s rehabilitation process, he experienced frustration with the quality and functionality of equipment available for use by individuals with physical disabilities. In 1990, the serial entrepreneur started his first company, Accessible Designs Inc. (ADI), with one product. Among some of the 15 patents Hargroder holds are for items he designed, such as anti-slip transfer boards that serve as a transfer-assist tool, push and transfer gloves, carbon fiber seating, disc brake systems, lightweight seating systems, high-performance wheels, hand trims, and cushions.
Over twenty-plus years, Hargroder grew ADI into an industry leader, selling products for the wheelchair mobility industry. By 2015, ADI was acquired by Stealth Products, a division of Pride Mobility, the world’s leading designer and manufacturer of mobility products.
By 2020, Hargroder was ready to work on a new innovation, the Power-Flex powered wheelchair platform. Hargroder met Soul Mobility president and co-founder Troy Tesmer at a wheelchair trade show over 15 years ago. Tesmer resides in Milwaukee and has twenty-plus years of technical design and international product line management across multiple industries.
Soul Mobility competes against dedicated power chair manufacturers such as Permobil, Sunrise Medical, and Pride Mobility. These companies, however, mainly focus on complex rehabilitation and dedicated power solutions.
There are limited hybrid solutions currently available on the market.
“The alternatives tend to modify the position and balance of the manual chair, while Soul Mobiilty’s platform provides a seamless transition from manual to powered,” Tesmer said.
Push to launch in 2024
Plans for the startup include working with the U.S. Veterans Administration to supply them with the powered wheelchair platform that can “empower the veterans who need this the most,” Hargroder said. A more basic powered platform model for senior users, as well as wheelchair accessories, are part of the company’s growth plan.
“Future developments include lightweight and highly portable derivatives of the Power-Flex, as well as looking into a more basic powered platform for our senior population and wheelchair accessories,” Tesmer said.
Operations, sales, and distribution for Soul Mobility will be based in the greater Milwaukee, WI region. Soul Mobility plans to maintain an innovation and design center in the San Antonio area, where Hargroder can continue to develop products for the market.
The company is working with an FDA consultant to guide the company through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) process, QMS (Quality Management System), and design control documentation to ensure full regulatory compliance and clearance. The Power-Flex units are currently in third-party certification lab testing in preparation for FDA 510(k) approval, a critical step for the Class II medical device.
Self-funded to date, Soul Mobiity is raising a $500,000 seed round that will go toward launching manufacturing operations in the first part of 2024, Hargroder said.
“We’re supporting the lives and independence of people with physical challenges,” Hargroder said. “Our product is geared toward the active person looking for the flexibility of power mobility.”
The featured image is of Soul Mobility founder and CEO Todd Hargroder working on the design of his powered wheelchair platform, courtesy photo.