During a 2011 sailing trip, Rimas Buinevicius sustained a spiral fracture to his leg that landed him in a wheelchair for more than two months.
It was his first time using a wheelchair for an extended period, and he says he was determined not to let the injury sideline him completely.
“I had a lot of bravado,” Buinevicius says. “I was going to wheel around for 10 weeks and maintain my exercise level, no problem.”
But before long, his can-do attitude began to wither.
“I found out after a couple days that pushing a wheelchair puts a lot of strain on shoulders,” he says. “After three or four days, I started feeling pain and discomfort. I thought, ‘Now I have a leg problem and a shoulder problem.’”
An engineer by training, Buinevicius says he began doing research to determine whether anyone was working on an alternative design.
One concept that caught his eye was the work of Salim Nasser, a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Nasser’s idea was for people to propel themselves by pulling back the rims attached to a chair’s rear wheels, instead of pushing the rims forward. The action is similar to rowing a boat, hence the name Nasser and Buinevicius chose for the company they co-founded in 2012: Rowheels.
The Fitchburg, WI-based startup, which set out to do nothing less than reinvent the wheel, started selling its first model of wheels in February. Rowheels claims its alternative wheelchair design provides health benefits, including strengthening upper back and shoulder muscles that get neglected by the pushing motion used with traditional wheelchairs, improving posture, and potentially lowering the risk of pain or injury.
Today, Rowheels takes another step forward. The company announced that the venture capital firm WISC Partners will invest up to $1.5 million in Rowheels as part of its Series A funding round. Buinevicius says the new financing will help bolster Rowheels’s sales and marketing efforts, and allow the company to continue developing a second model, aimed at a slightly older and less physically vigorous demographic.
Launching a Company
Like Buinevicius, Nasser’s desire to improve the practice of using a wheelchair comes from personal experience. But for Nasser, it’s been a daily experience since the mid-1990s, when he was 20 years old. That’s when a drunk driver ran a stop sign and crashed into Nasser’s car, leaving him with a devastating spinal cord injury, Buinevicius says.
Nasser soon regained some arm and shoulder strength, but still required a wheelchair to get around. That hasn’t stopped him from embarking on a career path that would be impressive for just about anyone, able-bodied or otherwise. He earned bachelors and masters degrees from Florida International University, during which time he first explored the concept that would become Rowheels, Buinevicius says.
Then, in 2007, Nasser took a job with NASA, where he designs and analyzes ground hardware used to help space shuttles take off. After settling in, he decided to revisit his idea for a wheelchair that could be moved forward via a rowing motion. He built a prototype, which captured the grand prize at the space agency’s 2010 “Create the Future” design contest.
Winning the award led to publicity, and then to inquiries from manufacturers interested in pursuing Nasser’s concept further. But he didn’t bite on any of the offers.
Then Nasser received an e-mail message from Buinevicius, who was likewise enjoying a successful career. He had progressed from engineering work to business school to Sonic Foundry (NASDAQ: SOFO), a Madison, WI-based company that helps customers stream video and manage content. Buinevicius served as CEO of Sonic Foundry for more than a decade before departing in 2011.
Nasser decided to go into business with Buinevicius, with Nasser serving as chief technology officer and Buinevicius taking the role of CEO.
While Nasser continues to live in Florida—where he squeezes in his Rowheels responsibilities 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.”