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Rendering of the Health Integrated Business and Engineering Program's wheelchair.

Imagine someone suffering an injury to one or both legs. Their ability to get around on their own is now based on how well they can adapt to using the wheelchair they’ve been assigned as part of the healing and rehabilitation process.

While wheelchairs offer the promise of mobility to the 2.7 million Americans who use them (according to the National Institutes of Health), a sizable group of people have injuries or conditions that make using a wheelchair uncomfortable or even impossible.

Those patients could soon have a remedy, thanks to a group of students in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Health Integrated Business and Engineering Program. Floyd Ostrowski, assistant professor of practice in UT’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, oversees the program, a collaborative initiative of the Tickle College of Engineering and the Haslam College of Business.

“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. He presented them with a variety of problems in addition to those of fixed-leg patients, including cases in which leg rests were too small or caused discomfort and patients who became discouraged by a lack of individually relevant equipment.

The students set about solving the various issues and developed a design prototype in the spring semester of 2020, along with a report on marketability of the design from a business standpoint. Goals for the project included development of 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.

The team even developed a business pitch modeled after those on the TV show Shark Tank, where an investor signs on in support and receives a percentage of sales in return.

Then, as with many other things, COVID-19 hit and the project came crashing to a halt.

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

Stanfill agreed, and, with three members of the original team and an additional student from biomedical engineering, 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.”

The patent process is important, as it will allow the team to maintain control of their idea and will keep potential competitors from copying their design. It also means that team members will get a portion of any future sales—an added benefit for the students.

The team recently competed in the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s “What’s the Big Idea?” pitch competition, falling just short of the finals.

Ostrowski added that all 19 of the students on the original team, as well as the student who joined in 2021, 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.

CONTACT:

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)