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alongside those of his day job with NASA—he and Buinevicius decided that the company should be located in Wisconsin. One reason for the choice was that the state is home to some iconic bike and motorcycle makers, Buinevicius says.
“I explained to him this long history of Wisconsin cycle manufacturing,” Buinevicius says. “Trek, Harley-Davidson, Saris—these are companies that have deep histories of building wheeled products. Well, why not wheels for wheelchairs?”
Saris Cycling Group is located just down the road from Rowheels in Fitchburg, a suburb along the southern limits of Madison. Among the bike-related products Saris sells are wheels equipped with high-tech meters that can measure how much power someone is generating while riding. Chris Fortune co-purchased the company that would become Saris in 1989 and remains its president. Saris formed a partnership with Rowheels, which Fortune says came about “because it made sense for both companies.”
Under the agreement, Rowheels delivers a wheel hub to Saris, which builds it out by adding spokes, a wheel, and a tire. (Rowheels’s wheels are not equipped with power meters.) The wheel is then sent back to Rowheels, which fastens on axles and the hand rim used to “row” forward. Those specialized wheels can then be easily attached to chairs made by several leading brands, including Invacare, TiLite, and Sunrise Medical.
By partnering, Rowheels is able to leverage Saris’s physical assets, like a machine that attaches spokes to a wheel. But it can also take advantage of the more established company’s supply agreements, which help keep down the cost of tires, air tubes, and other parts, Buinevicius says.
“California Mindset” Appealing
Buinevicius says prior to the latest funding round, Rowheels had raised about $1.5 million, some of which came from WISC Partners.
Earlier this year, WISC Partners helped fund a three-month pilot project aimed at developing a wheel for a broader segment of wheelchair users. (The model that went on sale in February, known as Rev1, is ideal for people with strong upper bodies who covet speed.)
Whereas the Rev1 has a 1.3 to 1 gear ratio—meaning a single revolution of the hand rim rotates the adjoining wheel 1.3 times, or 468 degrees—the next model’s ratio will likely be about 0.75 to 1. That means the person pulling the rims will feel less resistance, making the model a good fit for older, physically weaker users. Compared with the Rev1, they will need to increase the number of strokes to travel a particular distance, but Rowheels’s leaders believe customers will see that as an acceptable tradeoff.
The potential payoff for Rowheels could be huge. There are about 1.8 million manual wheelchair users in the U.S., and the market is projected to grow to $2.9 billion by 2018, according to a report from Wintergreen Research.
“Rowheels not only has the potential to transform an industry, but to transform the lives of its customers,” David Guinther, a WISC Partners general partner who will be joining Rowheels’s board, said in a prepared statement. “Healthcare providers will not only embrace this alternative for their patients, but will lead the way to its rapid adoption.”
That remains to be seen, of course, but the cash infusion should help, Buinevicius says.
The funding is contingent upon Rowheels meeting certain milestones over the next year related to marketing objectives and “product road mapping,” Buinevicius says. Most of the stipulations are related to the development of the new, lower-resistance wheel model, he says.
WISC Partners, which is led by Silicon Valley veterans and has said it will be more hands-on with portfolio companies than many other venture capital firms, was a logical partner, Buinevicius says. He says the ability to bring a seasoned, outside perspective to the Midwest is invaluable.
“In terms of our like-mindedness about how to grow businesses, we were peas in a pod,” Buinevicius says of Rowheels and WISC Partners. “This California mindset is extremely powerful for Wisconsin. We pretend that we understand this entrepreneurial nature, but people who have lived it for the last 30 years are few and far between in Wisconsin.”