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Senior Design Wheelchair Prototype in Use

Building a Better Wheelchair: ISE-Led Group Gets UTRF Funding for Invention

Imagine that you have suffered an injury to one or both of your legs, limiting your ability to get around on your own based on however well you can adapt to using the wheelchair you’ve been assigned as part of your healing and rehabilitation process.

While they offer the promise of mobility to many of the 2.7 million Americans that use wheelchairs—according to the National Institutes of Health—there is a sizable group of people whose injuries make using them uncomfortable at best and impossible in some situations.

Thanks to a group of students from UT’s Heath Integrated Business and Engineering Program under the direction of Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering Assistant Professor of Practice Floyd Ostrowski, those patients could soon have a remedy.

“Elizabeth Phillips, who is a physical therapist at UT Medical Center, gave a Tiny TED Talk here in 2019, where she outlined the problem of patients with certain leg conditions and treatments that made wheelchairs an almost unmanageable solution,” said Ostrowski. “Patients with legs that had to be held in fixed position, for example, were severely hampered when trying to use wheelchairs.”

Ostrowski took the problem to his class of then-juniors, presenting them with a variety of problems in addition to the “fixed-leg” patients, including cases where the leg rest was too small, where the leg rests caused discomfort, or where patients could be discouraged by a lack of adequate, individually relevant equipment.

Ostrowski’s spring, 2020 class began the project, which is currently being completed by a small team of students, most of whom were from the initial class. Students involved are:

Spring 2020 Class:

Michael William Burnside, Brian Grayson Coulter, Olivia Bennett Da Ponte, Racheal Anne Dylewski, Lance Joseph Ellington, Mattheus Edward Fry, Timothy Charles Hambly, Ashley Morgan Haylett, Matthew Alexander Herrell, Chelsea M. Hooker, James Matthew Johnson, Matthew G. Jones, Benjamin Scott Koester, Elana Michelle Ladd, Samuel Sungho Lee, Zachary Carl Newman, Hans Christian Perry, Madeline M. Thomas, Bradley Wade Weaver

Currently Finalizing the Project:

Olivia Bennett Da Ponte, Chelsea M. Hooker, Bradley Wade Weaver, Sydney Lawley Dobbs (Biomedical)

The students set about solving the various issues, and developed a final design prototype by the spring semester of 2020, including whether or not their idea was marketable from a business standpoint. Their goals for the project included a leg rest that was easy to use by all, worked with current wheelchair models, was easy to clean, and was both supportive and comfortable.

Student tests wheelchair designThe team even developed a business pitch to interested groups from around the area, modelled after the TV show “Shark Tank,” where an investor will sign on in support and receive a percentage of sales in return.

Then, like many other things, COVID-19 hit and everything came crashing to a halt.

Not wanting the effort to have been for naught, Ostrowski talked with the Tickle College of Engineering’s Edwards Assistant Dean and Director of Integrated Engineering Design Keith Stanfill about turning the idea into a senior design project.

Stanfill agreed, and, with three members of the original IBEP team and an additional student from biomedical engineering joining the group, the project had new life.

“They’ve finalized a design and have begun preparing drawings as part of the process for filing a patent,” said Ostrowski. “The UT Research Foundation has provided a maturation grant to help them develop the final prototypes, with the idea that they can possibly begin testing their design on patients by the end of the spring 2021 semester.”

Illustration of Wheelchair Protoype

The 2019 team that came up with the original concept consisted of 19 students, while the team that saw it through to the finish included three of those students plus one from biomedical engineering. Ostrowski added that the students will be listed as inventors on the patent and that if the product does make a successful splash on the market, the students involved will get a share of royalties and sales.