Mobility can be defined as the ability to purposely move across your environment. This freedom of physical movement can be impeded by conditions present at birth or those resulting from an illness or physical injury, which in turn result in an individual relying on devices such as canes, walkers, crutches, or, most commonly, wheelchairs. The wheelchair is one of the most commonly used assistive devices for enhancing the personal mobility of people with disabilities. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1% of the world's population (just over 65 million people) need a wheelchair.
All over the world, accessibility, which is key to wheelchair users’ independence, has improved as technologies and innovation in the e-health industry have progressed. “Avanchair was founded to respond to wheelchair users’ need for independence, inclusion and safety by supporting their mobility with a global approach”, says founder Andrea Depalo. Wheelchairs are not only capable of facilitating movement, but as society progresses in the energy transition, they can also promote sustainability through their rechargeable and eco-friendly features. By exploring the idea of this sustainable mobility, the young entrepreneur, alongside Emilio Rigolio, developed an electric wheelchair and IoT-driven system that offers the possibility to move from a wheelchair to any other platform (bed, car, WC, etc.) in total autonomy and safety, without having to rely on a caregiver.
“An innovator is someone who has accepted a challenge and uses his/her experience to question the status quo, to push boundaries and to overcome that challenge”
Andrea Depalo, Founder of Avanchair
A simpler way to move
Being a wheelchair user himself, founder Andrea Depalo affirms: “I want to turn my disability into an opportunity to create useful solutions for myself and others. When I realised that there are so many wheelchair users I felt less alone, but I also understood the common problems we all face”. It is this very commonality that drove Depalo to develop Avanchair, a high-tech wheelchair operated by automatic movement systems that limit and optimise the exertions of the user and those assisting him/her. “Transferring from and to the wheelchair is usually the most difficult and demanding task in an wheelchair user’s everyday life”, explains Depalo. In order to put ourselves in the shoes of these individuals, we must understand that these sorts of everyday activities mean independence for wheelchair users, and a safe and efficient transfer between surfaces reduces the physical and emotional stress for both the individual and their caregivers.
“Being a wheelchair user is a challenge and I want to change the way the world sees people with disabilities. For me, there is no disability: there are only different ways of expressing one's potential and willpower”
Andrea Depalo, Founder of Avanchair
Avanchair simplifies the autonomy of wheelchair users by using an embedded system that bridges the vertical and horizontal gaps between the wheelchair and the platform that users wish to reach. In addition to this, the technology focuses on "sustainable mobility for people with disabilities, which means offering them a solution to cover their mobility needs throughout the day: from safe and independent transfer from and to the wheelchair inside their homes, to IoT and health monitoring when they move across the street”, mentions Depalo.
By using IoT sensors, this electric wheelchair not only has the ability to monitor the user’s vital signs, but it can also provide support in remote assistance operations and integrate with e-health platforms. Avanchair aims to provide connectivity between the wheelchair and smart city electric vehicles for public and private transport. Aside from using this IoT sensor technology, Avanchair makes use of lithium batteries and fast-charging features to reduce the “range-anxiety” that may arise with prolonged use of the wheelchair between charges.
According to Depalo: “as other solutions currently lack the robotic and electrically powered accessibility tools”, Avanchair “wants to simplify the relationship between wheelchair users with their surrounding environment and provide the opportunity for them to interact directly with their surroundings".
Avanchair and Enel X
We met the young startup through the Italian Enel Innovation Hub network that has enabled Avanchair to build its business model. As a company, Avanchair shares many similar values with us at Enel, one of these being that we both believe that the future of mobility should not only be sustainable, but also inclusive for all.
“Enel is the first company I have ever encountered that considers working for and with people with disabilities as an opportunity to create innovation and value”, explains Depalo. At the January CES 2020 Enel X and Avanchair presented their collaborative technology JuiceAbility. This charging device for electric wheelchair batteries provides wheelchair users with a new service with ever-increasing options to recharge their electric wheelchairs, even away from home, in order to give them greater freedom and independence.
“The consideration of disabilities, alongside business actions, is a fundamental prerequisite for companies that want to be truly inclusive. The Partnership with Avanchair and the JuiceAbility project confirm our will to maximise the social and economic value that can be generated by this enhanced attention to inclusion and diversity”
Lorenzo Rambaldi, Head of eMobility Innovation at Enel X
Depalo believes that “individuals with disabilities need the best technologies in the market” and, with JuiceAbility, we have been able to come together to accelerate the natural process of granting wheelchair users the liberty to move wherever they please.
The company has developed its first prototype based on patented technology and aims to find investors to support and accelerate the processes between the defined prototype and a ready-to-market product. This socially impactful startup proves that there are no limits when it comes to innovation. In the case of Avanchair, the company identified the opportunity within the challenge and harnessed technology to provide freedom of mobility that will be accessible to all.