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Technology That Will Change Mobility As We Know It
For some time now, the buzz has been circulating about the iBOT Mobility
System, the first product in development at Independence Technology, a
Johnson & Johnson Company. Although the iBOT has not yet received
FDA approval, many who use power wheelchairs are anxiously awaiting the
arrival to marketplace of this revolutionary mobility device designed
to give people with disabilities maximum autonomy. While it is not yet
available for commercial distribution, the iBOT will feature multiple
unique capabilities. These include the ability to rise vertically to eye
level and balance on two wheels, utilize its four wheels to cross rough
terrain and travel up and down stairs while also functioning as a standard
Despite the anticipated unveiling of the iBOT, it is Independence
Technologys new iGLIDE Manual Assist Wheelchair rather, that is
taking center stage. The iGLIDE operates similarly to a conventional manual
wheelchair but uses proprietary technology to supplement user input power.
To the user, the iGLIDE feels like a much lighter chair moving over a
flat, smooth surface regardless of the terrain. Sensors and a microprocessor
provide motorized assistance, requiring much less effort from the user
than required in a traditional manual wheelchair. The mission of Independence
Technology is to develop products and technology applications that help
people with disabilities live their lives with greater freedom. With the
iGLIDE, Johnson & Johnson extends its tradition of innovative health
care service to a community of nearly six million people worldwide who
Just as it is, the iGLIDE that will be credited with changing the
paradigms of the manual wheelchair, it is Jean-Luc Butel, president of
Independence Technology, who is credited with building a new worldwide
franchise that will help improve the lives of people with disabilities.
Born and raised in France, Butel received his BA in International Relations
from George Washington University and his MBA in International Business
from The American Graduate School of International Management. Butel began
his career with Johnson & Johnson as a general manager. His responsibilities
took him to New Zealand, Fiji, Hong Kong, The Peoples Republic of China,
Singapore and Japan. He held positions of increasing responsibility, successfully
launching a number of new products and establishing new ventures for the
Johnson & Johnson family of companies throughout Asia.
Before serving consecutively as president of Becton Dickinson Worldwide
Consumer Health Care and Becton Dickinson Japan, he headed up Becton Dickinson
Japans Microbiology Division. Johnson & Johnson then welcomed
Butel back to their family of companies in 1999.
ABILITY Magazines Editor-in-Chief, Chet Cooper, recently spoke
with Jean-Luc Butel, regarding the product launch of the iGLIDE Manual
Chet Cooper: How did you become involved with Independence Technology?
Jean-Luc Butel: I have been with Johnson & Johnson for more than
10 years. They asked me three years ago if I were interested in looking
at the start-up of a new subsidiary for Johnson & Johnson called Independence
Technology. At that time we were in development stages for the iBOT. To
tell you the truth, when I first saw the iBOT my reaction was, If
this technology is for real we have the potential to completely change
the way mobility is addressed in the wheelchair category. I knew
a long development process was ahead of us, but I signed up to do it because
I have many friends who have disabilities, and I felt that this was a
unique piece of technology that could truly revolutionize mobility within
this community. Simply, I became involved because I could see the potential
in the technology. We have done a lot of work in the last three years,
especially improving the software and the performance of the device. In
November, we had a great FDA meeting with a unanimous decision to work
toward FDA product approval. We are now in the midst of inspection procedures
with the FDA and everything is going very well. We expect to have FDA
approval by April and then launch the product in May or June.
CC: Tell us about this new product.
JB: The new product that we are launching ahead of the iBOT, and about
which we are just as excited, is the Independence iGLIDE Manual Assist
Wheelchair. If youre familiar with some of the other power assist
wheelchairs, ours is a wheelchair that is built as one unit from the ground
up. It uses technology that will enable people to use a manual wheelchair
with the assistance of special sensors and motors so they can travel further
with much less effort. This technology has been tested by several customers;
they love the handling capability of the product and think it looks terrific.
The ability to stay in the manual wheelchair while having the ease and
assistance of this manual assist mechanism built into the iGLIDE is a
wonderful combination for people who are using wheelchairs. We feel that
this technology will help change the entire manual wheelchair category.
CC: Can you give a short description of the iGLIDE and how the technology
JB: The iGLIDE Manual Assist Wheelchair really feels like a much lighter
chair moving over a flat, smooth surface regardless of the terrain. The
user simply pushes the wheelchair handrail as if he or she were pushing
a standard manual wheelchair. Then you have sensors and a microprocessor
that provide motorized assistance in direct correlation to the needs of
the user, requiring much less effort than for a traditional manual wheelchair.
The iGLIDE monitors both the users input and resulting motion, even
when ascending or descending ramps or encountering resistant terrain such
as grass, soft carpet, etc.
CC: How do the sensors within the iGLIDE provide a smoother ride than
a typical manual chair?
JB: The sensors read the amount of pressure you put on the handrails
and basically duplicate that amount. That information is input to the
microprocessor. At the same time it is reading the resistance of the terrain.
If youre on a flat hardwood surface theres almost no resistance
to the glide. If youre on grass then the iGLIDE will feel resistance.
It compares the input you give and the resistance measured by the microprocessor
and automatically adjusts the speed of the chair. You maintain a consistent
feel without having to put forth extra effort.
CC: What type of market response to the iGLIDE is Independence Technology
JB: My boss is asking me that question everyday. [laughs] To quote the
original chairman of the Sony Corporation, Revolutionary technology
can never be researched. However, the feedback we received on the
market research we did was incredibly positive. Let me put it this way,
we are very committed to this category.
CC: Jean-Luc, explain the incentive for the researchwhat primary
issues did Independence Technology set out to address in creating this
manual assist technology?
JB: There were several points to consider on this, and we began by putting
together some of our concerns regarding long-term use of manual wheelchairs.
When people use manual wheelchairs they eventually start developing problems
such as shoulder injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome. The shoulder was
never designed to be a hip. We know that the use of the manual wheelchair
over time has a traumatic and negative impact on the physical wellbeing
of the user. The greatest benefit of the manual assist technology that
you find in the iGLIDE is that in many ways it will eliminate these problems
because now you can travel much further with almost no effort, indoors
CC: Are there other user-friendly aspects to control of the iGLIDE?
JB: Another positive aspect of the iGLIDE technology is that you can
travel over different terrain and the wheelchair will keep the same speed
for you. There is an intelligence system built into our motor and sensors
where the chair reads the speed you want to travel and will basically
maintain that speed regardless of the terrain. You can go on smooth or
uneven surfaces and the chair will automatically keep your speed constant.
Also interesting is that when you go up ramps you can do it almost effortlessly,
and as you go down ramps, the chair brakes by itself so you dont
start picking up speed.
CC: Beside causing a repetitive motion problem to the shoulder known
as the Manual Wheelchair Syndrome, isnt there still a benefit to
the cardiovascular exercise one gets when using a manual chair?
JB: Regarding the Manual Wheelchair Syndrome, studies have been done
by Dr. Rory Cooper, Ph.D., chair and Professor of Rehabilitation Science
and Technology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation
Sciences, which indicate that pushing the manual wheelchair is not the
right exercise for people who spend alot of time in their chairs. We will
always encourage people to find a way to do other exercises rather than
pushing the wheelchair along. We understand that for some people it is
good cardiovascular exercise and it keeps muscle tone, but there is more
damage done than there are benefits. People do need to exercise, but we
hope they can find different types of exercises to do.
CC: Does the system allow you to chose whether to move the chair around
manually or to use the glide
JB: Great question and one which has been asked on many occasions. Yes,
you can use the iGLIDE with the system turned on and benefit from the
technology, or you can turn off the system and youre back to a normal
manual wheelchair. Now, granted, its slightly heavier because you
have the battery and the small motors, but basicallywhile we dont
believe this would happenif the system fails you are not stranded.
You are able to move around as with a standard manual wheelchair.
CC: Does the system only function in a 100 percent capacity or will it
work at different levels?
JB: No, when its on its 100 percent, but remember, its an
intelligence system. So, if you want to go very fast with it, the chair
will read that youre pushing very fast and will give you that speed.
If you want to go very slowly, the chair will respond accordingly.
CC: Some of what youve said sounds like the concept of the Segway,
a personal transportation device that works as a governor to itself to
keep a constant speed even when descending. Was the iGLIDE developed with
the help of Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway?
CC: There is a need to improve reimbursements for this type of equipment.
How does Johnson & Johnson plan to affect policy with iGLIDE?
JB: Our view as Johnson & Johnson is that we would make a major effort
to cut the payouts whether it be Medicare, Medicaid or private insurers.
We want to make sure this wheelchair is treated in the wheelchair category,
but with a different coat and a different reimbursement policy. I dont
think its going to be easy, but there are tremendous benefits of
the technology and I feel we are ready especially on the medical class
clinical side of it. The benefit of this technology is that over time
it will save money. We plan to ensure the best reimbursement possible
for the manual iGLIDE technology.
CC: Will this be a global product launch of the iGLIDE, or do you plan
to introduce the product first in the United States and then expand to
JB: We have spent an enormous amount of time and money developing technology,
conducting interviews, visiting rehab centers and talking to users in
focus groups. We have done it all. Yet for us to say we know this category
would be premature. So, as we roll out both the iGLIDE and the iBOT, in
many ways we want to make sure that we walk before we run. We are not
going to try converting every user in the nation. These technologies are
not for everybody. We want to make sure that we learn the business and
the customers need even more than we have done so far. Then, eventually,
we will go overseas. Johnson & Johnson is the largest medical health
care company in the world and just like we do with any of our other businesses
we will roll out this product and well see.
CC: How does the iGLIDE compare to other products on the market?
JB: The cutting edge technology on the iGLIDE is what sets us apart from
our competition, namely the Yamaha power assist wheelchair. Our chair
is lighter and the ergonomic design of the chair is much better, based
on the feedback we received from the customer focus groups that we conducted.
Again, its an entire system, its not an add on; its
not an accessory. The chair has been built to be a manual assist wheelchair,
which can be compared to power steering in a car. Eventually the manual
wheelchair will be available for the majority of people in wheelchairs
using the manual assist technologies of the iGLIDE.
iGLIDE Manual Assist Wheelchair and the iBOT Mobility System and Independence
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Excerpts from the Hope Allen Issue