New Hampshire-based inventor Dean Kamen has launched a new coast-to-coast tour to bring the latest version of his iBOT personal mobility device — an all-terrain electric wheelchair — directly to Veterans Affairs hospitals.
The Operation Mobility Tour kicked off Thursday in East Orange, N.J., and is scheduled to make stops at 25 VA medical centers specializing in spinal cord injuries between now and the end of the summer. In partnership with nonprofit SoldierStrong, Mobius Mobility, the company behind the latest iBOT, will donate 50 of the machines — one that will be used for training at each of the hospitals with a second going to a wounded veteran.
“It looks great on paper, but it also functions properly because we have people that can definitely use this equipment,” Mike Moran, a retired U.S. Air Force member who lost use of his legs in 2006, told Yahoo News. “You get two like-minded organizations together and things get done. It’s a no-brainer.”
Moran, who was invited to test the latest iBOT before its release in 2019, said, “They have an open-door policy there at Mobius. And that’s kind of like the VA. You have a problem? Come on and call us.”
While the pairing of the VA and Mobius Mobility seems like a natural fit, it took the COVID-19 pandemic to bring them together.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, through a complicated set of relationships, we came to know that the Veterans Administration was caught short on PPE,” Kamen explained to Yahoo News. “Big organizations have good leverage, but they move slowly. And it's small organizations that seize opportunities.”
Over the course of several weeks, Kamen was able to deliver more than 1,400 tons of PPE to the VA by calling on existing business relationships with manufacturers in China and logistics giant FedEx. Then, at an event celebrating the achievement in April 2020, Kamen arrived in an iBOT, and the VA took notice. In the months that followed, Mobius Mobility and the VA came to an agreement on the donations, which will be personally delivered by Kamen and other speakers in a brightly painted recreational vehicle complete with a mobile examination room to fit the devices to users.
Unlike standard motorized wheelchairs, Mobius Mobility’s iBOT uses advanced technology that the company says provides a better quality of life for users. Like the original model that came to market in 2001, the latest device offers a four-wheel mode to traverse uneven terrain, the ability to climb stairs and a self-balancing standing mode that puts users at eye-level. However, due to the iBOT’s $30,000-plus price tag, widespread adoption has long been an uphill battle. The team hopes that by putting the device directly in the hands of doctors in the VA hospital system, the benefits will become clearer.
“Take them out in the world so that you don't have to trust my opinion,” Kamen said. “The facts will speak for themselves.”