First, Rowheels set out to reinvent the manual wheelchair wheel.
Now, the Madison-area company is reinventing itself.
Over the past few months, Rowheels has hired a new CEO, moved from Fitchburg to Middleton and entirely overhauled the way it manufactures and sells its patented reverse propulsion wheel technology.
Rowheels’ new leader, Gaurav Mishra, a former fighter pilot in India’s air force, has served in the top ranks of major global prosthetic and medical device companies in Europe. One of those companies doubled its sales in six years to more than $1 billion under his direction.
So how did he wind up as the CEO of a small, Wisconsin startup, as of July 1?
“They gave me a clean slate,” Mishra said.
Rowheels began in 2011 by creating a patented wheel for manual wheelchair users that moves forward by pulling back on the wheels instead of pushing them forward.
The company was founded by Rimas Buinevicius, former CEO of Sonic Foundry — the Madison company whose technology is used for live-streaming and archiving presentations — after he broke his leg while practicing for a sailboat race on Lake Michigan and wound up wheelchair-bound for eight weeks.
Buinevicius found out about Salim Nasser, a NASA space engineer who became partially paralyzed after a car crash in his native Colombia and built a prototype wheelchair with reverse gears.
The idea is that the movement of pulling back produces less strain on the shoulders, arms and upper-body muscles.
Dee Majeski of Racine has been using Rowheels for the past year. An Army veteran who lost feeling in her legs after back surgery, Majeski, 49, said she suffered damaged rotator cuffs after using a regular wheelchair for three years. She heard about Rowheels and gave them a try.
“Since then, I’ve had not one ounce of strain on my shoulders, reduced back pain and better posture,” Majeski said. “They’ve done great for me.”
Rowheels was rolling along in Fitchburg at the Renascence Manufacturing building, 2895 Commerce Park Drive, producing the wheels jointly with Saris Cycling Group, also in Fitchburg, and marketing the Rev1 wheels as a custom modification to a regular wheelchair.
The wheels were selling — for more than $5,000 a set — but the process was painstakingly slow, Buinevicius said.
“Under our present day insurance model, approval is needed from the doctor, a clinical therapist, the provider of the equipment and the insurer. The stars need to be aligned just right for the patient. It often takes more than 12 months for patients to receive equipment they need immediately. And after a long, laborious process, there are many denials of claims,” he said.
So Rowheels “pulled the plug on the outdated and expensive healthcare sales model,” Buinevicius said.
A new plan
Mishra’s new strategy calls for:
- Selling Rowheels as a complete wheelchair, not just a set of wheels.
- Selling directly to customers, online.
- Disrupting the price by selling the chair at $999.
- Providing delivery within two days.
Mishra said customers won’t have to wait for an insurance claim to be handled, and the wheelchair will be ready to roll, out of the box.
“It will be a completely different customer experience,” he said.
He thinks the company can turn a profit by 2021 and can bring in $25 million in revenue by 2023.
Rowheels raised $400,000 in June from Wisconsin investors as interim funding. The company is expected to follow up with a bigger funding round to carry out its new business model.
Mishra said Rowheels won’t just be selling wheelchairs, it will create its own marketplace of products for those customers.
They will include pediatric wheelchairs for children, ultralight ergonomic versions, and bariatric versions for larger people, as well as accessories such as cup holders and seat cushions.
Later, Rowheels may partner with other companies to offer their complementary products and services — chair lifts and other home assistance devices could be among them, Mishra said.
At some future point, the company could take another turn, moving beyond medical device products to offering to submit insurance claims for reimbursement to its customers and handling their prescriptions.
“And that changes the whole game,” Mishra said.
Real wheel changes
Mishra, a native of India, is a graduate of its National Defence Academy — India’s version of West Point.He earned his master’s of business administration from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
He was vice president and head of global sales for Touch Bionics, a Scottish company that makes bionic hands and arms, then headed global sales for Ottobock, a major German prosthetics company.
When he came to Rowheels — which moved into 8001 Terrace Ave., Middleton, in January — it had only two other employees.
The last of the original Rev1 wheels are being assembled there, but the company is preparing for production of its new Rowheels Revolution 1.0 wheelchair. It will feature a set of updated wheels — injection-molded plastic, with no rubber tire or metal spokes.
“This is a completely different wheel,” Mishra said.
The Rowheels Revolution 1.0 wheelchairs can be folded, accessorized and produced in a choice of several colors. They are expected to be available in October; orders are being taken on the company’s website now.
Mishra said as the manufacturer of the wheelchair, the company is applying for clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
He said Rowheels could be up to 20 employees by this time next year.
With the rapidly growing, aging population, projections are that another 2 million people will become wheelchair users each year and, by 2022, it will be a $5.4 billion market worldwide, according to Wintergreen Research, Mishra said.
“This industry needs a shake-up,” he said.
Mishra is “one of the few brave visionaries” in the health care field, Buinevicius said.
“Think Amazon, Uber, AirBnB — that’s where we want Rowheels to go ... within the medical device industry,” Buinevicius said.