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Travis Underwood has always been a reasonably mechanical guy. So when a
friend disabled by illness needed a better electric wheelchair, Underwood went to work.
   “The product he had was inadequate for his environment,” Underwood says.
It would work well on some surfaces, but not on others, particularly uneven,
outdoor landscapes. “I bought parts and pieces and built another machine—a raw prototype—in my garage.”
   The new mobility chair was an improvement. “I never really thought
about bringing it to market until I saw the benefits,” he says. “It didn’t take long to realize this could help other people, too.” 
   That’s when Underwood, who decided to go into business under the name
Freedom One Mobility, called upon Rose-Hulman Ventures for assistance. Getting a great idea up and running is a major accomplishment, but moving it from the garage to the marketplace brings new challenges.
   “He had a working prototype and needed it to be refined and advanced.
We took his unit, examined and analyzed it and looked at areas of improvement,” recalls Rob Davignon, a project manager at Rose-Hulman Ventures. Work began last February, and it made the most sense to start fresh, building upon Underwood’s design concepts. 
   What distinguished this electric mobility chair from others was its tanklike design, driven by two tracks instead of standard wheels. On some outdoor surfaces, the tracks were not working in tandem as well as they could.
   “The tracks would fight each other,” Davignon says. “We kept the tracks but improved their mechanics and then incorporated a new frame design to bring it all together.”
   The refined product rides primarily on the two track drives and one centered
rear wheel. “What differentiates this from others is that it can be used indoors, at home, in the office, and in shopping malls, and then be taken outdoors on 
trails, in the city, on sidewalks, and up small curbs,” Davignon explains.
   The device would be unique in the marketplace. There are chairs that work fine on most indoor surfaces and bulky devices that do well outside. “This is an all-purpose chair,” Davignon says.
   Underwood has been impressed by how Rose-Hulman Ventures enhanced
his original concept. “That place really knocked my socks off. It’s an amazing group of people,” he says.
   For one thing, Underwood was pleased that the assistance was simultaneously a learning experience for students. “It gives students experience seeing how things are done in the real world,” he notes.
   Davignon agrees, stating, “This is real-world stuff that you’re going to find in industry. Students are given goals and requirements for product characteristics that they have to look at, and they have to design for those goals and requirements. Each student had a different role.”
   Ben Low, a senior mechanical engineering student, was an intern who had a hand in the Freedom One Mobility project. “I got to do some design, and I
got to build a lot,” he says. “They even taught me how to weld.”
   There’s simply no educational
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substitute for this kind of hands-on experience, Low says. “It helps us tap into the design aspect and think of interesting ways to solve problems.”
   Other students assisting in the project were graduate students Arvind Chellappa and Jamison Woodley and junior mechanical engineering major Brandon Ridner. Students from nearby Ivy Tech Community College’s Wabash Valley campus lent assistance with welding and frame construction.
   The new mobility chair has already attracted plenty of attention around
Indiana. Even before he engaged Rose-Hulman Ventures to bring it to the next level, Underwood’s effort was a finalist for the 2012 TechPoint Mira Awards in the Health and Life Science Gazelle category and a nomination for Innovation of the Year from the same Indiana technology industry group. 
   With the prototype polished and refined, Underwood recently had the opportunity to show it off to military veterans who could benefit from the product at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “It was accepted well, and, based upon that, I’m pushing forward. 
We’re going to take this to market,” Underwood says.
   Funding is in place to launch production, and with further assistance 
from Rose-Hulman Ventures, he hopes to have products ready to sell later this year. In the meantime, Underwood’s sold on the value of a Rose-Hulman Ventures partnership. “It’s mind-boggling how thorough they are.”  
Steve Kaelble is an Indiana-based freelance
writer.