We caught up in an exclusive interview with Satoshi Sugie, founder and CEO of WHILL, a former Nissan employee who took his car design skills to the mobility world. Now he pioneers power chairs that are sleek and easy to use.
WHILL is set to revolutionise the UK electronic intelligent personal mobility market with the launch of its new Model C, a personal electric vehicle which will transform and push the boundaries of the wheelchair and scooter experience and change the culture and mindset of personal mobility.
Sleek, sophisticated, and minimal – the modern design marries pragmatism with functionality and manoeuvrability. The Model C featuring patented front omni-wheels provide a tight turning radius enabling users to access the tightest of spaces. Advanced driving features include a joystick for precise manoeuvrability inside and two powerful motors to ease through the busy and uneven pavements of towns and cities, as well as grassy and bumpy terrains outside.
Satoshi’s mobility journey started started with a chance meeting with a wheelchair user who was going to a grocery store ten blocks away from his house – the encounter changed Satoshi’s career trajectory.
“He felt there was a negative image about wheelchair users, and he didn’t want to be seen. And he was also worried about slopes and bumps on the road,” recalls Satoshi. It was enough to push him in the direction of mobility aids.
“We have a small engineering team, and it took one year of development to make the product. We had such an overwhelming response from all over the world. Then we set up the company in 2012,” he says.
After some user research, WHLL talked to rehabilitation centres, hospitals, and did research with over 200 wheelchair users in the US.
“As I come from a car design background, my brain works outside the box,” says Satoshi. “We don’t want it to be a medical device: it’s a consumer product. The design of it is like driving a car or riding a bike. The posture is like a driver.”
This is a power chair with a difference – thanks to the wheels, you can move sideways, too. And the software, which is controlled via an app, can adjust to you.
“I think both manual chairs and power chairs are needed, I don’t think one will take over the other,” says Satoshi. “A power chair is better for a long distance trip, whereas in a manual chair that might cause you pain.”
At the very heart of the design is the desire to create a product which eliminates the adverse psychological impact that affects people who use mobility devices. “We have drawn on our design and engineering backgrounds to create the WHILL Model C, a next generation personal electric vehicle which not only provides freedom of mobility, but freedom from the self-consciousness often associated with a wheelchair or scooter,” says Satoshi. “It’s our intention to redefine the concept of personal mobility for people who use a wheelchair because of a disability or reduced mobility. We have created the WHILL Model C for those who are active, social and crave adventure.”