Dr. Pooja Viswanathan displays the obstacle-detection sensors. Courtesy of Braze Mobility

“Cars have sensors. Why can’t wheelchairs?”

That was the question that consumed Dr. Pooja Viswanathan for almost a decade – so much so that she started Braze Mobility, a company that manufactures sensors for wheelchairs. As its CEO and co-founder, she is helping to revolutionize the industry and make the world a safer, more accessible place for people with disabilities.

Seeking to make an impact on healthcare

Viswanathan has always been passionate about computer science and how it can be used to improve accessibility. “The only reason I got into computer science was because I wanted to have an impact on healthcare and quality of life,” says Viswanathan, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto.

She was first drawn to the area of mobility when she was working on a project with older adults with dementia. A visit to a long-term care facility gave her a better understanding of the obstacles the residents face. “I saw first-hand that a lot of the residents there were not even allowed to use powered mobility because of concerns about their cognitive impairment,” she recalls.

This is incredibly limiting for older adults especially because they often don’t have the strength to propel themselves and must depend on a caregiver to push them around. Not only does this lead to loss of mobility and independence for the wheelchair user, it also places an added burden on caregiving staff.

Viswanathan learned these accessibility challenges were not limited to older adults. They affected many kinds of people with physical disabilities who use wheelchairs. It inspired her to spend 10 years developing sensor technology that could tackle the mobility issues. Her latest research helps manual and powered wheelchairs to better detect obstacles, increasing safety and independence for users. However, she didn’t always see herself turning her work into a commercial product.

Pooja Viswanathan, photo credit AGE-WELL

Meet the accidental entrepreneur

“When I started the research, I just assumed that some wheelchair manufacturers would commercialize this technology,” Viswanathan says. When that didn’t happen after a decade, she decided to take matters into her own hands. “I figured if I wasn’t going to do it, then it didn’t seem that anybody else would.”

Viswanathan, along with her supervisor, Dr. Alex Mihailidis, a professor at the University of Toronto and co-founder of Braze Mobility, were successful in bringing the technology to market. The Braze obstacle-detection system was officially launched in October 2017.

The system is comprised of two main products: Braze Hydra, which offers more flexibility in mounting options, and Braze Sentina, recommended for people who want a greater awareness of obstacles at the rear of the wheelchair.

“It’s incredible because now that we have launched, the constant comment we get from people is, ‘Where have you been for the last 10 years?’” Viswanathan says.

Although she describes her transition from researcher to entrepreneur as a “natural progression,” Viswanathan still had a steep learning curve when it came to handling the business side of Braze Mobility.

She has been doing free workshops around Toronto, crediting institutions such as MaRS and the Impact Centre at U of T. Through these resources she has learned how to commercialize her research and how to handle issues related to intellectual property and marketing.

Despite the wealth of insight and expertise she carried from her research background in computer science, the road to launching Braze wasn’t always smooth.

Initially,Viswanathan was handling virtually everything herself, from development to product management. Now that the company has support from organizations such as AGE-WELL, the Ontario Centres of Excellence and the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), she has been able to expand the team and hire a full-time product manager.

A second hurdle she faced was a pragmatic one – the fact every wheelchair is different. “We had a long phase of development to finalize a design that could fit on every chair,” Viswanathan recalls.

Developing a smarter prototype

Fortunately, she was able to develop partnerships with companies such as Motion Specialties, one of the largest wheelchair distributors in Canada. The partnership allowed the Braze team access to Motion Specialties inventory. That allowed developers to check out different types of chairs – a huge advantage especially during the prototyping stage.

Braze also started a beta client program to help with development. Through the program, users in the community were able to test the technology and provide feedback to the team on what was working well and what wasn’t.

Since taking the leap into entrepreneurship just a few months ago, Braze Mobility is already selling products across North America. They recently landed their first institutional customer – an exciting moment for the company. “At this point, we’re looking to grow; we want to have an international reach,” she says.

In the future, the hope is to integrate Braze’s technology into healthcare systems around the world. Viswanathan also wants to work with manufacturers to integrate the sensors right into the wheelchairs themselves. More than anything, she wants to help create a world where people with disabilities have access to technology to help them live better, safer and more independent lives.

“We want to set this as the standard,” Pooja emphasizes. “Just as you have sensors mandated in cars, that’s where we want to get to with wheelchairs. You should not have a wheelchair in the market that doesn’t have sensors.”