How an innovative wheelchair helps this man stand tall
Utah-based Matia Robotics is working to improve the mobility and health of a wide range of users who use wheelchairs or face walking challenges with a novel electric-powered stand-up wheelchair design
For veteran Nevada fireman Bill Winchester, lightning struck twice.
The first time was in 2014, when Winchester was training for a 100-mile “century race” bicycling event. Riding near his home in Reno, Winchester ran into a trailer that was illegally parked in a bike lane and suffered a severe spinal injury that required a medical helicopter transport to a Denver hospital and two weeks in an intensive care unit.
But the injury to Winchester’s upper spine left him paralyzed and he would later spend time rehabbing and learning to navigate his condition at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, a highly regarded facility that specializes in spinal cord and traumatic brain injury rehabilitation and research.
Winchester would never return to live in the home he left that day for his training ride.
“Our friends and family packed us up and we moved to a rental since our home was a two-story structure,” Winchester said. “And we made plans to build a new home to suit our purposes.”
A married father of three, Winchester didn’t let the outcome of his injuries, which left him paralyzed from about the level of his armpits down, derail his active lifestyle. Instead, he learned how to ride a hand-powered bike and returned to the roads.
In 2016, Winchester was struck by a car while riding his handbike, and suffered additional spinal damage as well as a traumatic brain injury. While he didn’t lose further use of his upper body, the second accident intensified the side effects of his spinal damage, including the onset of severe muscle spasms.
Face to face matters
Between his first and second accidents, Winchester had been invited to try out a piece of new technology developed by Turkish engineer and robotics expert Necati Hacikadiroğlu. The innovation was a stand-up wheelchair that incorporated a mechanism to help lift the user from a sitting position to a locked-in, stand-up position in an electric-powered mobility device that is controlled by a joystick. On first appearance, the Tek RMD is reminiscent of a burly, four-wheeled Segue.
While Winchester, who is 45, said he hadn’t spent much time on the device prior to his second accident, it has since become a regular part of his life and one that is making positive impacts on both his physical and mental well-being.
“You don’t realize until you’re confined to sitting down how important the psychological benefits of face-to-face interactions are,” Winchester said. “I spent 17 years in the fire services and emergency medical services world, and you build a sense of confidence with a patient through those face-to-face communications.
“And that’s how I feel when I’m standing in my Tek RMD.”
Upright mobility, indoors or out
According to Tek RMD, Hacikadiroğlu developed the stand-up wheelchair as a spinoff from work he was doing on exoskeletons, external frames, sometimes powered by motors, that can support the body to overcome injuries or to enhance body functions.
Matia Robotics, the manufacturer of the Tek RMD, was founded in 2012 and earned European Commission approval to sell its device to European Union customers in 2015. The company has since earned two U.S. Food and Drug Administration certifications for sales in the U.S.
The company’s U.S. headquarters and manufacturing facility resides in a 13,00-square-foot warehouse in Salt Lake City and is overseen by CEO Chris Tihansky, a veteran of the medical device sector. Matia also operates a facility in Istanbul, Turkey.
Tihansky said Matia’s stand-up electric wheelchair is designed to give mobility to those suffering from injuries and medical conditions that have inhibited walking abilities and/or created new fall hazards.
“The Tek RMD mobility device can help people with a wide range of disabilities,” Tihansky said. “Anything from spinal cord injury to someone with (multiple sclerosis) or cerebral palsy … essentially any kind of condition that requires a person to be in a wheelchair.”
Tihansky said one of the distinguishing design elements of the Tek RMD is the mechanism that aids the user in moving from a sitting position in their wheelchair into a standing and secured position in the RMD and can even position the device with a remote control for the transfer.
“You can back the device up, using the remote, while sitting in a wheelchair or bench or bedside,” Tihansky said. “You lift your legs into the footwells then a harness goes behind the user and snugs them into the device. Press a lever and the RMD lifts the user up. Once they’re in the upright position, a simple joystick controller allows them to maneuver in their space.”
Tihansky said the Tek RMD, which retails for around $20,000, can qualify for reimbursement under insurance plans managed by Veterans Affairs, Medicaid and Workers Compensation but is not covered by Medicare, which he noted does not pay for any stand-up, powered wheelchairs for patients.
According to a Matia Robotics investor information package, the global market for powered wheelchairs in 2020 was nearly $3 billion, and Tihansky said there are 3.6 million potential users in the U.S. alone. The company is aiming to build its market presence and further develop its Tek RMD device, backed by over $8 million in debt and equity financing to date. The company also has a $5 million round of venture investment in the works.
The Tek RMD is narrow enough to maneuver through doorways and in limited spaces, can operate for a day on a charge and is able to cruise around at the pace of a brisk walk, around 3.5 miles per hour, according to the company. While a standard device comes with wheels for indoor use, an optional outdoor wheel kit gives the RMD a few more inches of clearance with bigger tires and widens the stance from about 16 inches to 24 inches.
A boost for physical and mental well-being
Winchester said that maneuverability and the RMD’s ease of use allows him a much higher level of autonomy than what a standard wheelchair provides.
“I can get into a standing position ... and go where I want,” Winchester said. “Go to the garage and get something off the top shelf, make dinner, answer the door. The RMD gives you the flexibility to be almost, for the most part, independent.”
Winchester also highlighted the physical benefits of using Matia’s device, noting that while severe muscle spasms and other ongoing effects of his multiple injuries limit him to an hour or two in the device a few times a week, being in the stand-up position helps improve some of the impacts of being in the sitting position.
Those benefits include better bowel and bladder function, improved bone density, reduction in pressure sores and improved circulation, Winchester said. And, perhaps most notably, he said it has huge psychological impacts.
“It just makes a big difference in being able to feel respected,” Winchester said. “When I’m upright in the device, I feel much more positive about myself ... and feel like it’s much easier to relate, person to person.”