Inventor’s long, strange trip to market fueled by MEMS

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Dec. 5, 2002 — As the MEMS-enabled Segway scooter throws itself on the mercy of the market on, its less-hyped older cousin, the iBOT, moves closer to opening new worlds for the wheelchair-bound.

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An advisory board to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration recently recommended approval to sell the Independence iBOT 3000 Mobility System. It’s a wheelchair that comes equipped with MEMS gyroscopes and accelerometers that enable it to climb stairs, handle rough terrain and balance on two wheels as it rises the user to the height of a standing person.

The board’s unanimous recommendation weighs in the FDA’s final decision, which could come in a few months.

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Meanwhile, the Segway Human Transporter — which like the iBOT is a brainchild of New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen and uses the same MEMS-based “dynamic stabilization” technology — made its first retail appearance for consumers late last month on The two-wheel machine, which sells for nearly $5,000 and has been sold to industries and governmental institutions, can whisk riders around at 12 mph, and never falls over.

But it had a shaky start, at least from a marketing standpoint. The official launch last December followed a year of media speculation spawned by an apparent leak. Despite some good reviews, it couldn’t live up to the hype: Critics and comedians labeled it, among other things, an oversized weed trimmer and a reinvention of the wheel.

But there was a technical edge for both the Segway and iBOT — the gyros and tilt sensors that give the devices the information they need to sense orientation and balance. And the technology could open the door to new or radically retooled products.

“(The iBOT and Segway) are such great ways of illustrating the things that couldn’t be done but for MEMS technology,” said Marlene Bourne, a senior analyst for In-Stat/MDR. “Raising visibility of what the technology can do is what will drive growth of this industry.”

While both could disrupt existing markets and create new ones, Bourne said, the iBOT most likely will have greater social impact, offering wheelchair users physical as well as psychological boosts with its ability to roll over gravel or up a grassy hill, and rise in standing position.

The FDA advisory panel’s recommendation comes with a few conditions, including a requirement that a doctor prescribe the device and that clinicians and users undergo strict training. The FDA is also requiring that it receive data on the iBOT’s performance and users’ experiences after it hits the market.

The requirements are reasonable, in the opinion of Susan Odenthal, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson, whose Independence Technology business licensed the technology from Kamen’s DEKA Research & Development Corp.

“In terms of the iBOT, none of these were considered to be unusual from our point of view,” she said.

“We consider this a transformational technology. This isn’t an incremental change from what exists out there. This is completely different from anything out there. There are features that are just not available to this community.”

That opinion was echoed by Joe Canose, director of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center, a New Jersey-based group that provides help and information to those living with paralysis and their caregivers.

He sees the iBOT’s two main innovations — the ability to climb stairs and elevate — as equally important. But the lifting function has several benefits, such as allowing users to reach items on high shelves and giving them confidence in a conversation with a standing person. A third advantage is helping to alleviate pressure sores, one of the biggest problems facing people confined to wheelchairs. Users must lean forward or backward to direct the chair.

“Changing their position on a more regular basis is a big deal,” he said. “Ulcers can be life-threatening if you have no feeling. You don’t know something is going on down there.”

Canose said the biggest obstacle that will stand in the way of the iBOT’s widespread acceptance will be its high price — it’s expected to cost $29,000. “Most people who are living in a chair are facing financial hardships.”

The U.S. government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services sets reimbursement rates for drugs and devices, and influences private health care insurers. Odenthal said those rates can’t be set until full FDA approval. In the meantime, Independence Technology has been talking to private payers about the iBOT.

“We certainly can make payers aware of the benefits the product can offer … (but) so much of that is driven by what Medicare chooses to do.”

As for the Segway, some might balk at the $4,950 price tag. Bourne believes weather also could limit the Segway’s reach into consumer markets. She believes its main market will be warehouses as well as other industrial and government facilities, and college and corporate campuses in warmer climates.

Neither rain nor snow — nor cost — seems to be dampening enthusiasm or interest, according to Carla Vallone, spokeswoman for Segway LLC. Although Vallone would not provide sales figures, she said Amazon orders are doing well. The company also has sold Segways for outdoor meter reading in New York state and Seattle, two places not known for their abundant warmth or sunshine.

“Right now, we’re just making it available to consumers — we’re using that as a gauge as to what the response is,” she said, adding that the company believes that ultimately the consumer, industrial and governmental markets will be successful for Segway.

She said the company is proud and pleased after a decade’s worth of work to be able to make a device with 10 onboard computers, two tilt sensors and five gyros — for less than $5,000.

Bourne said both the iBOT and Segway could prove that MEMS devices need not be high volume and low cost to succeed.

“This illustrates that there are opportunities out there for things that are not terribly high volume but have a high value associated with them,” she said.


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