Wheeling in a New Life
Moupia Basu August 21, 2017
It was a happy moment for four young engineers from NIT Calicut when their design for a shower and commode wheelchair won the top prize at the 'Design for Disabled' competition sponsored by the Kozhikode-based NGO Pain and Palliative Care Society (PPCS). Funded in part by PPCS and the NIT, the team made a prototype in 2011. "The response was immediate," says Ganesh Sonawane, the founder and CEO of Arcatron Mobility. "We were offered grants to develop the design further but refused as by then the two of us had started working in Pune," he says. But the ball had been set rolling, and the thought of 'reinventing assisted living' and making it more safe and dignified firmly planted in the team's mind. After working on the different designs, while doing full-time jobs, the four launched the company in July 2015.
At a time when people are living longer, a large number of senior citizens and others with restricted mobility are looking for ways to make their lives easier. Arcatron couldnt have been launched at a better time. "We discovered that the market for wheelchairs was unorganised," says Chief Technical Officer Lakshmikant Banjaaray. "Those available did not have advanced features, and those that had were very expensive. The cheaper ones had basic features and were mostly made in China," says Banjaaray.
After college, the team pooled in savings and continued to experiment at a workshop in a friend's flat. Around this time, it approached Anoop Hingorani, former deputy general manager, RIL, who along with Sonawane pumped in Rs 41.5 lakh. The team also borrowed Rs35 lakh from a private source and in 2014 applied for a patent for the wheelchair.
With a handful of players in the Rs440 crore assisted bathroom device market, Arcatron Mobility's products target those with spinal cord injury and the 110 million elderly, of which 35 per cent require help in daily activities. Its SAS100 model can be wheeled into the bathroom under the shower and also rolled over to fit on to a commode.
"A simple function such as sitting on a toilet seat that would take four-five steps for the physically challenged can be done from the Arcatron wheelchair without any assistance," says Kunal Kamble, VP, Design who, along with Dewaj Baruah, VP, Manufacturing, and Arif Khan, VP, Business Development, Sonawane and Banjaaray, forms the core team of Arcatron.
"The wheelchair has a soft, water-resistant skin-moulded seat made of polyurethane which prevents sores. It has seven adjustable heights and a swivel armchair," says Kamble. The company is planning mass production starting October and is targeting 500 units over three months. Registered in 2015, it generated Rs15.3 lakh during the beta launch in 2016/17. "We floated a website, did trial rounds in hospitals, and reached out to potential customers," says Khan.
Arcatron has roped in Pinnacle Industries, one of India's largest commercial vehicle and bus seating/interiors companies as a manufacturing partner. Pinnacle, which has been making wheelchairs under a separate CSR project with MIT and a Boston-based NGO, GRIT, has offered its expertise and production facility at a nominal margin. "It was a passionate team which wanted to focus on something which went beyond the usual and addressed a growing social need. It found a place on our CSR map," says Sudhir Mehta, CMD, Pinnacle Industries and lead investor, Indian Angel Network or IAN. Mehta invested Rs20 lakh in Arcatron at incorporation in return for compulsory convertible debentures at a discount. "We've offered Arcatron our factory till it gets its own facility. The market is there. Once it is sure it can tap it, it is free to use our other facilities too. If we have to create companies which solve important problems, we need to nurture them," he says. "The market is hugely untapped," says Mehta.
Sukhdev, the owner of New Delhi-based Everest Engineers, which makes the Sage brand of wheelchairs, walking aids and toilet aids, agrees. "Although the domestic market is unorganised, it's huge. Orders are mostly customised depending on the needs of individual patients." Sage, too, manufactures shower wheelchairs which cost Rs15,000 upwards; but each wheelchair has a different specification. "They could be metallic or made of plastic, convertible or portable. The range is wide but not uniform and can cost up to Rs1-2 lakh," says Sukhdev.
This is where Arcatron plans to step in. "Most wheelchairs in the same category as ours are imported or very expensive. Germany-based Ottobot has a similar product with little variation but costs Rs30,000-1,00,000. The rest are mostly customised. We plan to mass produce," says Sonawane.
Arcatron will launch the self-propelled multipurpose shower and commode wheelchair Frido in October, producing 500 units at first, for which it has already raised Rs1.5 crore from IAN. The company hopes to become revenue positive with the launch.
Since devices for the specially-abled are typically customised, Bhargav Sundaram, owner of Chennai-based Callidai Motor Works, which has been making motorised wheelchairs and tricycles for two decades, is not very optimistic about volume-driven production. Callidai makes a vast range of wheelchairs, both powered and manual, but like Sage, its products are customised. "Although I would love to mass produce a product such as a hi-tech wheelchair, how would I distribute it or create awareness about it, and more importantly, work out the transportation and reach out to dealers? It is not easy to market a product where every customer has different needs. If it is being done, it means the company has deep pockets and an efficient distribution network. It would be wonderful though if flexibility is built into a standard design," says Sundaram.
Having recently bagged the top prize at Surge '16, the Indian edition of Web Summit, Arcatron also plans to go global. It has been approached by Sri Lanka-based Amedco, a leading surgical equipment distributor, for channel partnership. "We have also been approached by Bridgeway Healthcare, which is present in the Middle-East, with an offer for distribution," says Sonawane.
Moupia Basu is a freelance writer