Inspired by her sister, engineering student designs a better wheelchair
Mary Radke has firsthand experience with the transportation barriers faced by people who use wheelchairs.
Her own family has taken 29-hour road trips to California, because flying would require renting a car — and most rental cars don’t accommodate the type of wheelchair her sister, Elissa, depends on.
The senior mechanical engineering major has spent the fall semester developing a better solution: a wheelchair that breaks down to fit inside any vehicle, while allowing wheelchair users to remain in the same seat during the loading process.
She’s named her solution “Elissachairs” in honor of her sister, who was born with spastic quadriplegia, a form of cerebral palsy affecting muscle coordination.
“These families have enough problems to worry about, and transportation shouldn’t be one of them,” Radke said. “Most people don’t think twice about hopping in another vehicle. Why should it be any different for people in wheelchairs?”
Radke presented a business pitch for “Elissachairs” at the Dec. 12 Engineering Pitch Competition, winning first place in the undergraduate category. Hosted by the College of Engineering and NUtech Ventures, the competition featured 16 teams from departments including mechanical engineering, biological systems engineering, advertising and public relations, chemistry, business and software engineering.
The competition doubled as the final assignment for 30 students enrolled in a new entrepreneurship course, including Radke. The one-credit course taught engineering students concepts including value proposition, customer segmentation, market size and business models.
Course instructors from the College of Engineering, the National Strategic Research Institute and NUtech Ventures also taught students how to conduct interviews with prospective customers and use that feedback to inform their ideas.
While conducting interviews, Radke learned that most insurance companies don’t cover wheelchair modifications for vehicles, an expense ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 that most families struggle to afford.
“The class shaped my entire project, because initially, I only had broad ideas about changing a wheelchair,” Radke said. “After going out on interviews, I learned that transportation was a big problem. It’s not about having a great idea and forcing it — people will tell you what they need.”
These are the learning outcomes encouraged by both the engineering entrepreneurship course and pitch competition, said Zane Gernhart, who helped teach the course and organize the competition.
“We want to help students connect the dots between their classroom knowledge and real-world problems,” says Gernhart, a technology manager at NUtech Ventures. “We hope students continue building upon their ideas and even consider starting their own company.”
For her next steps, Radke plans to work on a wheelchair prototype and pursue a patent for her design. She ultimately wants other families to have better access to transportation, both in their daily lives and farther away.
“I remember when we tested out a new wheelchair mechanism for Elissa, and she had the biggest smile on her face, because we got her out to the beach,” Radke said. “For people who use wheelchairs, the ability to make any vehicle accessible is a game changer.”
Final results from the pitch competition are:
- First place: “Elissachairs,” Mary Radke, mechanical and materials engineering
- Second place: “Niteyes,” Sam Ortgies, mechanical and materials engineering, and Zach Vancas, advertising and public relations
- Third place: “Pyrol,” Jacob Peddicord, software engineering, and Luke Bogus, marketing and management
- First place: “Optigo,” Jacob Quint and Carina Russell, mechanical and materials engineering
- Second place: “Implant Release,” Albert Nguyen, biomedical engineering, and Alyssa Amen, business
- Third place: “Hybrid Solutions,” Guru Madireddy, mechanical and materials engineering
- Dan Hoffman, Invest Nebraska
- Dominic Pynes, Lincoln Plastics
- Ken Moreano, Scott Technology Center
- Chris Dill, Kiewit Technology Group
- Jim Taylor, National Strategic Research Institute