Eighteen years ago in the fading light of an autumn day on the San Francisco peninsula, Brian Watwood was riding a bicycle on a country road when he was suddenly hit by a car.
When he awoke in a hospital, he found he was paralyzed from the neck down.
At 38, his life as he'd always known it had ended. He was put in a wheelchair. But with several surgeries and a lot of luck, his spinal cord recovered enough to enable him to regain feeling in his arms and legs. It turned out that he's one of the few quadriplegics who was able to walk again.
But it was while he was in a wheelchair trying to drink from a water fountain at the hospital when his frustration with his chair's unwieldiness made his blood boil.
From then on Watwood dedicated his life to figuring out a way to make wheelchairs more operator-friendly to the people confined to them.
And now after years of refining and retooling his invention, Watwood's company, SuperQuad -the name he gave himself while recovering from his accident -- is about to roll out his Wijit, a smoothly operating, lever-controlled wheel. When two Wijits are popped onto a wheelchair, it more than cuts in half the muscle power needed to move forward, backward, up and down slopes, or to spin around and brake.
"He's had a passion," said PRIDE Industries Inc. chief executive and president Michael Ziegler, who has known Watwood for years, and admires his dogged persistence. "This is like his personal mission. He's put his heart and soul and money in to it, trying to make it fly."
It's ready to fly.
SuperQuad now is about to sell Wijits to medical equipment markets through resellers in the United States and Europe.
A new path: Pride's Roseville headquarters will handle the Wijit's distribution logistics locally.
A Japanese manufacturer is lined up via a newly formed joint venture called Avant, whose partners will sell Wijits in Asia.
SuperQuad has a string of patents and registered trademarks in place, along with U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, and a line of credit.
A pair of Wijit wheels sell for $1,800.
SuperQuad president Shannon Hollsten said the company projects it will sell 50,000 units per year over the next half-decade -- good for annual revenue of $90 million.
The company, which now employs nine, expects to hire five full-timers in sales and marketing over the next year.
She and Watwood are confident of market demand. They conservatively estimate that there are 8 million people using wheelchairs in the United States and Europe and at least 10 million in Asia. After touting the chair at trade shows, they claim having a waiting list of 1,000, which "grows by 50 a day," said Hollsten.
Demand is driven by those plagued by shoulder, arm and wrist injuries from constantly hand-powering their wheelchairs. Wijit users can sit upright, free of the telltale slouch traditional chair users tend to develop from the strenuousness required for their mobility. And Wijits' control levers sit straight up from the wheel, offering a more natural angle to use arm muscles, Hollsten said. The ability to sit upright and shake people's hands without having a well-worn glove on, she added, is in itself a self-esteem builder that most wheelchair users appreciate.
The biggest selling point for the Wijit, however, is seen as its ability to liberate users from the shackles of a wheelchair that's hard to maneuver.
"Throughout history, people have been willing to die for freedom and mobility," said Hollsten. "A product like this does represent freedom and mobility."
Wheelchair retrofits to sets of Wijits are expected to be a robust market since they cost a lot less than a battery-powered chair. And because the Wijits require some exertion, they are touted as helping users stay more fit. SuperQuad expects buyers to receive some reimbursement from health maintenance organizations and other medical plans for Wijit purchases.
A new path: After his accident Watwood was no longer able to continue his career in the building industry. He and his wife sold their Silicon Valley home and moved to Granite Bay, when it still was undeveloped. Watwood, pulling together the expertise of design engineers he knew, initially came up with a lever device in 1994 to simplify wheelchair operation. He met with friends in the Silicon Valley with experience in bringing products to market. From 1996 through 2004 he pooled more than $3 million from 70 investors.
He got the levers to market -- they could be installed between a traditional wheelchair wheel and its axle -- but in 1998 and 1999 he realized the Wijit needed to be retooled. In order for them to work on 45 different models of wheelchairs, the company needed to built 17 different retrofit kits for the Wijits that then were made up of 72 parts. That, Watwood could see, was a path too expensive to continue on.
So Watwood and his core of designers went back to the drawing board, and eventually came up the latest Wijit design, a wheel and a lever, with the unit's mechanics built into the hub of the wheel. It is a piece of complex but slick mechanical engineering made with 175 parts. Its gearing ratio lets a wheelchair occupant propel the chair twice as far as a regular chair using the same arm strength.
"It's a very simple idea, but there's a tremendous amount of engineering to it," said Watwood.
In May, chief executive Watwood hired Hollsten as president of the Roseville company. She has a background in manufacturing management. Now the company has a new line of credit -- the amount of which wasn't disclosed for competitive reasons -- from a company backer.
SuperQuad has no debt. Hollsten figures sales revenue will repay whatever is borrowed on the credit line in less than 18 months.
Eventually, Hollsten said, SuperQuad may become publicly traded.