During a 2011 sailing trip, Rimas Buinevicius sustained a spiral fracture to his leg that landed him in a wheelchair for more than two months.
It was his first time using a wheelchair for an extended period, and he says he was determined not to let the injury sideline him completely.
“I had a lot of bravado,” Buinevicius says. “I was going to wheel around for 10 weeks and maintain my exercise level, no problem.”
But before long, his can-do attitude began to wither.
“I found out after a couple days that pushing a wheelchair puts a lot of strain on shoulders,” he says. “After three or four days, I started feeling pain and discomfort. I thought, ‘Now I have a leg problem and a shoulder problem.’”
An engineer by training, Buinevicius says he began doing research to determine whether anyone was working on an alternative design.
One concept that caught his eye was the work of Salim Nasser, a mechanical engineer at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Nasser’s idea was for people to propel themselves by pulling back the rims attached to a chair’s rear wheels, instead of pushing the rims forward. The action is similar to rowing a boat, hence the name Nasser and Buinevicius chose for the company they co-founded in 2012: Rowheels.
The Fitchburg, WI-based startup, which set out to do nothing less than reinvent the wheel, started selling its first model of wheels in February. Rowheels claims its alternative wheelchair design provides health benefits, including strengthening upper back and shoulder muscles that get neglected by the pushing motion used with traditional wheelchairs, improving posture, and potentially lowering the risk of pain or injury.
Today, Rowheels takes another step forward. The company announced that the venture capital firm WISC Partners will invest up to $1.5 million in Rowheels as part of its Series A funding round. Buinevicius says the new financing will help bolster Rowheels’s sales and marketing efforts, and allow the company to continue developing a second model, aimed at a slightly older and less physically vigorous demographic.
Launching a Company
Like Buinevicius, Nasser’s desire to improve the practice of using a wheelchair comes from personal experience. But for Nasser, it’s been a daily experience since the mid-1990s, when he was 20 years old. That’s when a drunk driver ran a stop sign and crashed into Nasser’s car, leaving him with a devastating spinal cord injury, Buinevicius says.
Nasser soon regained some arm and shoulder strength, but still required a wheelchair to get around. That hasn’t stopped him from embarking on a career path that would be impressive for just about anyone, able-bodied or otherwise. He earned bachelors and masters degrees from Florida International University, during which time he first explored the concept that would become Rowheels, Buinevicius says.
Then, in 2007, Nasser took a job with NASA, where he designs and analyzes ground hardware used to help space shuttles take off. After settling in, he decided to revisit his idea for a wheelchair that could be moved forward via a rowing motion. He built a prototype, which captured the grand prize at the space agency’s 2010 “Create the Future” design contest.
Winning the award led to publicity, and then to inquiries from manufacturers interested in pursuing Nasser’s concept further. But he didn’t bite on any of the offers.
Then Nasser received an e-mail message from Buinevicius, who was likewise enjoying a successful career. He had progressed from engineering work to business school to Sonic Foundry (NASDAQ: SOFO), a Madison, WI-based company that helps customers stream video and manage content. Buinevicius served as CEO of Sonic Foundry for more than a decade before departing in 2011.
Nasser decided to go into business with Buinevicius, with Nasser serving as chief technology officer and Buinevicius taking the role of CEO.
While Nasser continues to live in Florida—where he squeezes in his Rowheels responsibilities … Next Page »