"I am so glad someone invented the Alinker," says Barbara Alink, "because I'm using it now."
That someone, of course, is Barbara Alink, who, shortly before this conversation, slipped on a Montreal sidewalk and broke three metatarsal bones, making it impossible for her to walk without assistance for a couple of weeks. Alink didn't particularly design the Alinker for people with broken bones. The Alinker is an innovative walking trike designed for people who want to stay active despite deteriorating health, a neurodegenerative disease, or even lower limb amputations. Her invention weighs about 20 pounds, collapses easily to fit in a car trunk, costs about $2,000, and is a bright, cheery yellow. "These people are looking to stay active, but there's nothing out there," says Alink.
Alink is Dutch by birth, a carpenter and architect by trade, and has worked on reconstruction projects from Africa to Asia, including Afghanistan. After 10 years doing so, she became disillusioned with the politics of international aid organizations, and decamped to Vancouver. On a visit to the Netherlands to see her mom, the two noticed a woman using a walker, whereupon Alink's mom informed her daughter she would get her into a walker "over my dead body."
That's when Alink began to fully appreciate the divide between those perceived as able-bodied and those perceived as not. "The suffering is not just physical--it's the isolation," says Alink. Having lost her father at age 8, she felt she could relate. At that young age, "People were uncomfortable talking with me because they were uncomfortable with death," she recalls. "I was mourning, and people left me on top of that."
So when Alink set out to create a mobility device, she wanted something that offered sociability as well. Alinker users can look straight ahead--unlike with a walker--and meet others at eye level, unlike with a wheelchair. "I discovered that half of the people who use wheelchairs can still use their legs to some extent," says Alink. "But there is nothing designed for them to stay active and at eye level."
Joe Revello, now 66, was desperately trying to stay active despite his multiple sclerosis, regularly Googling terms such as "futuristic walking device." One night in 2014, that search term brought up a website for the Alinker, which had only recently gone live. Revello was determined to try it out. Alink was in Amsterdam working on a crowdfunding campaign for the trike. At the time, only a prototype existed.
Revel set out for Amsterdam. He says that at the time, he could probably walk 100 yards with crutches before his back gave out. During his first spin on the Alinker, he went three miles. He bought one as soon as he could. "It's totally opened up the world to me," he says. "I can go out with my friends without them having to worry about me anymore. I can go out in the snow. I can travel. We went to Italy."
And, he says, the Alinker is a conversation-starter, in just the way Alink hoped it would be. At first, Revello says, people don't even realize he has a disability. They just want to know where the pedals are on the bike. (It doesn't have any.) "It takes the stigma of the disability away," says Revello. "It's magical."
"It needs to overcome."
After Alink's mother remarked about the walker, Alink made a prototype of the Alinker from laminated wood, then brought it to Toby Schillinger, a metal fabricator in Vancouver. He offered to make it "cheap and simple," says Alink, but that's not what she wanted. "It has to be cool," she told him. "It needs to overcome."
By 2013 Alink had filed for patents on the design of the bike, and by 2014 she'd run a successful crowdfunding campaign in the Netherlands. By 2016, she'd run another crowdfunding campaign, this one on Indiegogo, and raised about $475,000 in equity.
Then Alink headed to an accelerator run by the University of British Columbia. "When [Barbara] wheeled in on the Alinker, we were blown away," says Andrea Lloyd, the program manager for the accelerator, called Entrepreneurship@UBC. "We think the Alinker has potential impact worldwide, and can make a huge amount of difference, especially in terms of the aging population around the world."
After Alink appeared in a pitch competition arranged by the accelerator, a large foundation (it won't allow its name to be used) agreed to help finance production. "If you create 200 Alinkers, they have to make space on the [factory] floor for production," says Alink. "People don't get that."
Alink also won backing from SheEO, a group that brings together individual women to fund loans to promising female entrepreneurs. "Barbara has designed an innovation that can change inclusion and mobility for hundreds of millions of people," says Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO. "We are thrilled to be helping her scale her innovation around the world."
Alink wants to build a successful business, but her higher priority is getting the Alinker into the hands of as many people as possible. That makes the finances tougher. She realizes many people who lose some of their mobility also lose at least some of their income, and often have very large medical bills. So she wants to donate as many Alinkers as she can.
Of course, it's hard to donate Alinkers without cannibalizing sales, so Alink has had to be an innovator in distribution and financing, as well. She's partnered with Scootaround, which rents and sells wheelchairs and scooters, to provide financing for the bikes, and with CoCoPay to help potential customers crowdfund the expense. She recently reached an agreement to donate 500 Alinkers through the Poor People's Campaign.
She's also working with various physical therapy and other medical practices to learn more about how Alinkers may affect patients' health. Peter LeWitt, the director of the Parkinson's disease and movement disorders program at Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield, Michigan, is starting a trial that provides a few dozen patients with Alinkers. He will be comparing their progress with patients who do other forms of exercise.
LeWitt calls the Alinker "promising and invigorating," and says two potential study participants have already asked to buy the Alinker, even though they've yet to try one. "If people have fun with this, it'll be motivating for them and they'll get conditioning," LeWitt says. Alink hopes insurance companies will eventually help pay for the Alinker, if it can be shown to decrease healthcare costs by improving users' health.
And yes, one of those users is now Alink's mom.