If a wheelchair startup doesn't sound sexy, you probably haven't heard about WHILL.

Founded in Tokyo in 2012, the company makes a sleek electric wheelchair, called the Model M, that has four-wheel drive and unmatched maneuverability over any terrain. It even made a cameo in the blockbuster film Batman v. Superman.

"There is no design or innovation in this industry," says WHILL co-founder Satoshi Sugie. "We want to make a new category for personal mobility devices, the sidewalk electric vehicle. We want to change the perception of the wheelchair."

Sugie, a former Nissan engineer​, along with Sony product engineer​ Junpei Naito and Olympus medical device engineer Muneaki Fukuoka, started work on WHILL back in 2010 as a weekend project. The group received an overwhelming response to their prototype at the Tokyo Motor Show, and decided to pursue the idea as a company.

WHILL went on to win the TechCrunch Tokyo startup competition. After moving to San Francisco in 2013, the company joined the tech accelerator 500 Startups, and since has raised $13 million in funding from investors including Innovation Network Corporation of Japan and Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy.

So far, WHILL has sold 500 of the chairs, which the FDA approved in February, for $14,000 apiece. The Model M can hit a top speed of 5.5 miles per hour and has a battery that lasts up to eight hours, or 12 miles. Its front wheels are composed of 24 smaller omnidirectional wheels, which give it a tight turning radius and allow it to drive on gravel, dirt, or snow. The chair can also be controlled by its joystick or a smartphone app.

This week at RoboUniverse, a robotics conference in New York City, WHILL showed off its newest creation: an autonomous version of its wheelchair. WHILL's partner, Carlsbad, California-based 5D Robotics, equipped the Model A, which is not FDA approved and is technically a "personal mobility device," with sensors and software that enable it to ride along a predetermined route or follow behind a person automatically.

5D's software and hardware can make any vehicle autonomous with its so-called behavior engine, CMO Phil Mann says. The behavior engine collects data from GPS, lidar, sonar, radar, and ultra-wideband radio to steer the chair clear of obstacles with 2-centimeter precision.

WHILL plans to sell the autonomous version directly to consumers soon, as well as to airports, amusement parks, and hospitals. The company is currently testing it at airports in Cincinnati and Tokyo. Sugie says he hopes it will be used to bring disabled passengers from their plane to a taxi automatically.

Published on: Apr 13, 2016