[Corrected 4/19/17 4:18 pm. See below.] After nearly five years in business, Rowheels, a Fitchburg, WI-based maker of special wheels for wheelchairs, is expanding its team and products. [This paragraph has been updated to correctly state the amount of time Rowheels has been in business. We regret the error.]
The company sells wheels that allow people in wheelchairs to propel themselves forward by pulling the hand rims—as if rowing a boat—rather than pushing them. This alternative motion is more effective at strengthening back and shoulder muscles, while the design improves a chair’s responsiveness and braking, says Rowheels co-founder Rimas Buinevicius.
Earlier this month, Rowheels named Fred Mindermann as its new CEO. He replaces Buinevicius, who continues to be involved with the company as its chairman. The leadership change comes as Rowheels adds more wheels to its product lineup, attempts to widen the distribution of its products, and considers selling entire wheelchairs, Buinevicius says.
Rowheels began selling its wheels in 2015, after spending its first few years in research and development mode. Currently, the company sells two models, each of which comes in four different sizes. One of the models, known as Rev-HX, is designed for athletes and other physically active individuals. The other model has a lower gear ratio, meaning the person pulling the rims will feel less resistance. That makes it a better fit for certain older adults and other wheelchair users who do not have as much upper-body strength.
Buinevicius says both models are “high-end” wheel sets. They weigh about eight pounds per wheel, and a pair sells for $2,999, he says. The two types of wheels the company sells today are marketed mostly toward people who are likely to use a wheelchair for years on end. [A previous version of this paragraph gave incorrect amounts for the weight and price of the wheels. We regret the errors.]
Meanwhile, there are many people who only use wheelchairs temporarily, such as while recovering from injury over a period of weeks or months. Rowheels is now also setting its sights on this potential customer group. Later this year, the company will introduce a new wheel set, which will be called Rev-3 and cost less than $1,000, Buinevicius says.
Health insurers sometimes pay the cost of a chair equipped with wheels from Rowheels, depending on the specifics of the patient’s coverage plan. Still, some patients end up paying out of pocket, Buinevicius says.
Like the two Rowheels models that are already on the market, Rev-3 wheels can be attached to chairs made by several brands, including Invacare, TiLite, and Sunrise Medical.
Buinevicius referenced the bicycle industry when explaining why his company decided to offer a more affordable wheel. People can spend thousands of dollars on a two-wheeler at an upscale bike shop, or buy one for $100 at Walmart—it all depends on the wants and needs of the individual, Buinevicius says. He envisions Walmart, along with other big box chains like Costco and Target, potentially selling wheelchairs with Rev-3 wheels attached at some point in the future.
In the more immediate future, Rowheels is working to get its products on shelves at 30 locations of Numotion, a Brentwood, TN-based seller of wheelchairs and wheelchair parts. Rowheels also plans to explore its options for selling products via online retailers, such as Amazon, Buinevicius says.
It’s also possible that Rowheels will begin purchasing wheelchair frames—meaning all parts excluding the wheels—and selling entire chairs, equipped with its wheels, under white-label agreements with frame manufacturers, Buinevicius says. Rowheels would likely continue to sell wheels à la carte so that users who are satisfied with their frames but want to switch from pushing to pulling only have to buy what they need.
The company plans to fuel some of its growth through revenue and retained earnings, but it also plans to continue courting venture capital investors, Buinevicius says. Rowheels raised a Series A funding round in late 2015, which according to an SEC filing currently stands at about $610,000, and is in the process of raising another round, he says. He declined to comment on the timeline for closing the latest financing, or say how much his company is seeking to raise.
Rowheels currently has 10 employees, with plans to hire an additional five to 10 workers by the end of the year, Buinevicius says.