Perhaps not everyone knows that one of the first battery-powered electric vehicles was a wheelchair. Experiments by Canadian inventor George Klein date back, in fact, to the early 1930s, and survivors of the Second World War were able to benefit from them during the 1940s, many decades before Tesla built its factories.
Paradoxically, however, technological progress in the sector has been slow: the current level of development, with the exception of a few cases, has largely stood still since the 1990s. This lag represents a lost opportunity: the World Health Organization estimates that around 65 million people need to use a wheelchair, while the Wheelchair Foundation calculates this figure to be in excess of 130 million. And for many of them this innovative tool could be the best possible solution.
Andrea Depalo has set himself the mission of closing this gap. Depalo is an Italian businessperson whose dream is to use his own personal disability to help improve the quality of life for all who find themselves in a similar situation.
That is why in 2018 he founded Avanchair, a startup that aims to develop and commercially produce what has been defined as his “inspired intuition”: a futuristic electric wheelchair with cutting-edge features. The importance of innovation to the project is even visible in its name: a combination of “avan” from the Italian “avanzare”, meaning to advance (also recognizable in the French expression avant-guard), and the English world “chair.”
So far, Depalo and his partners have built a “technological demonstrator,” which he uses himself. It already “employs the main innovation, which is a brand new feature at global level: the seat, in fact, can move horizontally and vertically when the wheelchair isn’t in motion in such a way as to enable the user to transfer unaided to and from the wheelchair to bed, the bath or elsewhere. This solution guarantees the user greater autonomy, but also makes these types of transfers safer.
“The idea was to be autonomous in what, in reality, are the most critical moments for someone with a physical disability like mine, i.e. to independently be able to go to bed or get into a car or go to the bathroom. These things may seem banal but they occur many times in a day,” explains Depalo. And at the heart of the project was “my desire to be more independent and be less of a burden on my wonderful family, who always help me, and on my friends.”
The meeting with Enel
One decisive moment was the meeting with Enel and in particular with the Group’s Chief Innovability Officer, Ernesto Ciorra. Many startups struggle because they do not develop well-structured plans or because they do not encounter the right channels to progress. Enel’s network of Innovation Hubs meant that Depalo avoided these risks. “Their acceleration pathway enabled us to build a solid business plan, which is one of two cornerstones, together with the technical side.”
Avanchair was able to benefit from our Open Innovation model which creates a collaborative environment in which all innovative ideas are valued. This approach was one that was most appreciated by Depalo: “I fully believe in Enel’s role and the way it operates, which is not to go into business with the startups but rather to support them from the outside and help them grow.”
In this particular case though, for us at Enel there was also another positive factor: the project fosters the inclusion of people with disabilities, one of our reference values, together with enhancing diversity. This is one of the many reasons why we have become a Reference choice for customers. There’s also the convergence between the different forms of sustainable mobility. “In reality,” explains Depalo, “the distance between a Tesla and an Avanchair is very small, in the sense that the functioning principle is the same. The divergence largely concerns the dimensions, speed and use, in so far as an electric wheelchair can also be used inside the home.”
These parallels led to a visionary idea: to create a device to charge electric wheelchairs using EV charging infrastructure. The result – which is a world first in this field – is called JuiceAbility and was officially presented in 2020 in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronic Show – CES 2020, the world’s leading electronics fair.
The product was developed by Enel X, the Enel Group company that specializes in innovative technologies for electric mobility, but with invaluable consultancy from Depalo: it is always important to be able to count on the point of view of the final user. Depalo explains: “As part of the Open Innovation approach I was able to make my own contribution in terms of usability and the features of this product. This was from someone who genuinely needed charging facilities, then the technical part of JuiceAbility was developed by the Enel team.”
And now the great leap forward
For Avanchair the time has now come to make the great leap forward. The goal is clear: to pass from an artisanal level to an industrial one. Therefore, on May 4 a crowdfunding campaign was launched on the Eppela platform that aims to raise 130,000 euros in 40 days to help develop a market-ready prototype.
Enel’s contribution is also crucial in this phase: the Group has pledged to contribute 10,000 euros for every 5,000 donated, up to a maximum of 50,000 euros, effectively tripling the funds raised.
Depalo believes that six months will be sufficient to complete the project, adding around nine months for the authorization phase. Given that the project relates to a medical device, this period should be relatively brief and the product is expected to hit the market in 2022. Depalo has also made assurances that the price will be competitive and even lower than the few models on sale that have comparably complex technology.
A boundless space
For the future, the horizons are even broader. To begin with, various versions of the chair could be built, and they could be calibrated to meet different requirements. And then the alignment with electric cars could bring further improvements from a technological perspective: more efficient batteries, greater range, continuous monitoring of the battery status, fast charging services and the integration with both the domestic and public charging networks.
Furthermore, contacts have already been made with companies specialized in sensor systems, which could equip the chairs with tools that use the Internet of Things, enabling, for example, autonomous driving or the automatic opening of doors at home. Other sensors could integrate advanced e-Health systems like the possibility to record users’ health parameters and, if necessary, send them automatically in real time to doctors or family members. And so on and so forth, without limits or boundaries to further technological developments, in short – without barriers.