23 August 2009

Innovative wheelchair could aid disabled

See the Smartchair in action. The multifunction wheelchair.

By Tim Booler
Chief reporter
A Wearside innovation could revolutionise the lives of disabled people around the world.
The humble wheelchair is about to benefit from new technology and the skills of Sunderland entrepreneurs and North East inventors.

They have devised the Smartchair, which they believe could transform the way disabled people can be transported in hospitals, care homes and even their own houses.

It works as a multi-function platform and can change from a wheelchair to a stretcher or lifting platform, without affecting stability.

The inventors say the Smartchair cuts the need for many different items for individual functions, and makes the moving process more dignified for patients.

A company, Smartchair Ltd, was set up to develop the idea through Boldon firm Em8 Technology.

The group behind the scheme includes Sunderland entrepreneur Alex Bastholm; city businessmen Neil Herron, 46, and Matthew Thoburn, 44; inventor and former Sunderland University lecturer Dr Phillip Tann; inventor Andrew Turner, from County Durham; and company directors Paul Wright and Byron Longstaff.

The Smartchair has been pitched to American experts in the field and UK hospitals as well as Sunningdale School and Ingleside Residential Home.

"Everbody who's seen the demo video has loved it," said Mr Herron, Smartchair director. "It will allow people more mobility and freedom, and make life easier for hospital staff and carers."

The idea started eight years ago when Mr Bastholm – the developer behind Dalton Park Shopping Mall – required a mobility device for his stepdad, who suffered from multiple sclerosis.

Finding nothing suitable on the market, he turned to inventor and robotics expert Andrew Turner, from the automotive industry, who came up with the innovative Smartchair design.

"We had to think outside of the box," said Mr Bastholm. "It's a massive idea. And it's a necessity not a luxury."

The company now aims to take the idea to the next step.

"We have already demonstrated the design and concept to the Georgia Institute of Technology University Hospital," said Mr Herron.

"They have indicated an early interest in the technology and they require a working prototype to proceed further.

"In association with Georgia Tech we presented the technology to the Shepherd Group, who famously helped design the wheelchair system used by Superman actor Christopher Reeve.

"We are keen to develop and manufacture in the North East and bring manufacturing jobs to the area and we are considering funding options from a number of agencies.

"We have already been supported by funding from Business Link and the Regional Technology Council and we are currently discussing the way forward with One Northeast.

"Given the interest we have had already from the States and the NHS we are confident that we will have a product ready for manufacture within 12 months."

Fellow director and investor Mr Thoburn said: "We are keen to push forward and showcase Sunderland-developed and manufactured technology on the national and world stage."

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