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Company strives to redefine a wheelchair's limits

Rehab Ideas CEO and USF engineering instructor Stephen Sundarrao pilots a No Boundaries Off Road Wheelchair Kit off the sidewalk and onto the grass, demonstrating the capability of the machine to carry a wheelchair to new terrain.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Rehab Ideas CEO and USF engineering instructor Stephen Sundarrao pilots a No Boundaries Off Road Wheelchair Kit off the sidewalk and onto the grass, demonstrating the capability of the machine to carry a wheelchair to new terrain.

TAMPA

You reach behind a chair for your backpack or purse and don't think twice. You explore the uneven terrain of the beach or a park trail whenever the urge hits.

But if you're paralyzed, if a disability forces you to use a wheelchair, these everyday activities can be difficult to impossible.

University of South Florida engineering instructor Stephen Sundarrao and his students hope to change that, by creating and marketing devices to make life easier — and more fun — for the disabled.

Rehab Ideas, a fledgling company housed in USF's research incubator, has already patented and licensed five student creations. There are plans to patent two more, and Sundarrao's goal is to start selling some of the products by September.

Sundarrao believes the timing is ideal for Rehab Ideas, given the waves of young veterans returning from the Middle East with amputations and other debilitating injuries.

"Wheelchairs still have a very negative stigma, and they're not designed to look cool. But the demographics of people with disabilities is changing," said Sundarrao, 40, an India native who got his master's degree from USF. "We want to create a culture around these products, like Apple has for the iPod."

Rehab Ideas' products include a kit that adapts a wheelchair to make it move laterally and a $110 crutch that folds up to fit into a big purse or carry-on luggage.

There's also the No Boundaries Off-Road Wheelchair Kit, a rugged 150-pound wheeled platform that securely holds a standard wheelchair — allowing users to roll onto sandy beaches, wooded trails or rocky paths.

Sundarrao's mechanical engineering students created the devices as part of a class assignment. Rehab Ideas tweaked the designs, and Tampa Brass & Aluminum Corp. makes them.

Sebastian Mahler designed the Backpack Retriever before he earned his USF bachelor's degree in 2006. It attaches to the arm of a wheelchair and with the push of a button swings around to hold the bag, but not so widely that it knocks over everything in its path. It will sell for $975.

"I wanted to build something that would actually be used," said Mahler, 25, now working in Texas. "From the start, my objective was to make it marketable."

The inspiration for the idea was a young man with muscular dystrophy who told Sundarrao he just wanted to pick up his own backpack. Sundarrao said many of the products originate like this, when people who use wheelchairs tell him all the things they wish they could do.

He meets them through his work as associate director of USF's Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology Program, a center that modifies vehicles and other devices so that disabled people have more opportunities for work and independence.

Working with him now is a former student, Joshua Lujan, 31.

Lujan is an engineer at the center now, but he was part of the student team that designed the Sideways Wheelchair Kit.

The kit attaches to the back of a power wheelchair and allows it to move side to side. That's ideal for the aisles of a classroom or movie theater.

Lujan finished the project over about 15 weeks in spring 2006. Two years later, he sees that it could do a lot more than just boost his grade and his resume.

"The fact that this could help somebody, or a lot of people?" Lujan said. "That's intrinsically rewarding. You're doing something good for the world."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 224-7263.

Company strives to redefine a wheelchair's limits 05/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2008 1:35pm]
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