By Stephen Burnett
Elderly people who need help getting around often depend on a “walker” and just as often have to settle for what’s available, even though it may not meet their needs.
Medical student Edward Wood aims to build a better one.
In 2008, Wood, then a college senior, noticed his grandmother’s dislike of her walker.
“She had Parkinson’s disease, and she was forced to rely upon walkers on a daily basis,” Wood explained. “But she was reluctant to use them, because she didn’t like how unwieldy they were. … She didn’t like the way they made her feel even more debilitated than she was.
“So it caused me to take a step back and think: Is this device solving the problem that it attempts to solve?” Wood asked. “And my conclusion, after talking to lots of elderly people, physicians, nurses, others in health care, [was] that the walker device could be greatly improved. … This is when I kind of set off on this journey … creating a novel walker.”
Walk before you run
Four years later, Wood is working to patent, market and eventually distribute what he believes is that better option for elderly users or physical-therapy patients. He has conducted research, contacted artists, assembled focus groups, and reconnected with a friend — fellow UK medical student David Nelson — to help coordinate the business side of the project.
At this point they can’t reveal exactly what about the REDwalker, as they call it, makes it better than ordinary aluminum or “rollator” walkers. But Wood is certain they have a market.
“A lot of the current walkers have features that help people,” Wood explained. “They do allow you to walk. They allow safety and support, to an extent. And in that sense, they fulfill a need. But a product is only as useful as … the willingness that people have to actually use it.”
While current walkers are useful to some users, he added, they lack usability and desirability. “The ability to use something yourself provides a great deal of independence and self-confidence.”
Wood said he has interviewed elderly users who simply don’t want to use the kinds of products now available. “They really dislike the stigma associated with using a walker. Whether or not they identify that consciously, people don’t use these devices nearly as much as they should.”
Both Wood and Nelson are from Kentucky, and are in their third years at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. For Nelson’s part, he’s interested in anesthesiology as well as medical entrepreneurship. “Working on this [walker project] together is not just a business interest, but because of the shared medical interest we have,” Nelson said.
Though Wood’s father is a medical doctor, Wood said he’d wanted to make his career decision his own. Only in his final year at Vanderbilt University did he finally opt for medicine, specifically ophthalmology, a field he appreciates more because of its impact and pace of advancement.
For both of them, medical advances come first and business second, Nelson said. “We are, first and foremost, medical students and dedicated to those things that we are passionate about.”
Because of that passion, Wood had to organize his jobs and time to clear room for walker work.
“I really enjoy working on it, so that’s what made it doable,” he said. “I never saw it as a job.”
With a friend from Vanderbilt, Wood bought items at a Home Depot to build a rough model of a new walker. He began observing model designs people favor, along with designs in nature. “We used some of these inspirations, such as from nature, to create a rough prototype,” he said.
He took a year off classes to work jobs and plan his walker project before coming to UK in 2009.
By then he had set up a secure website for the project, contacted others and started research into the current walker industry. Wood also began interviewing walker users, such as friends of his grandmother, and others: rehabilitation facility staff, doctors, nurses, medical-supply sellers. Eventually those informal interviews led to more-structured focus groups that gave even better information, Wood said — what features people prefer, how much they would pay, and more.
Participants of different elderly age brackets thought the new walker idea a great one, he said.
Meanwhile, designers in Boston contributed freelance drawings for the project. Those led to more prototypes, made of wood and then foam. Then based on the focus groups’ feedbacks, Wood and others moved to a working and folding model, a computer-designed model, and at last, a fully-working prototype that looked better, could fold, and could bear someone’s weight.
Toward home health improvement
At that point, Wood had entered his third year of medical school and got in touch with Nelson. At UK, organizers were holding a business-concept competition, and Wood needed help to enter. Both men won with Wood’s walker concept, and the two began entering similar events.
“It opened up enough doors that my involvement became not only from a consultation basis, but I became personally interested and invested in the project,” Nelson said.
“Right now we are in the process of finalizing the most recent design,” he added.
They have made more changes to the model, while developing more contacts for the walker distribution effort, including mentors and potential investors. So far they have not gone public with a specific timeline. “But I think we can certainly say that we think that it’s important to do this at a point where we are both in Lexington, and when we both have relative time to work on it,” Nelson said. “A year from now — it’s really the opportune time from now until then to make as much progress with this as we can and get to a point where it can start to be manufactured.”
However, Wood said it would be incorrect to conclude this is all they are planning for their futures. “We’re primarily dedicated to our medical careers,” he said. “The fact that [this product] is rooted in the fundamentals of medicine, of providing the best care for patients … I think our product is shaped by our philosophies from that standpoint.”
With more people living much longer, and often choosing home health care over treatment at a retirement center or nursing home, more people need a better walker, Wood added.
“It’s not just something that we think would be a good market opportunity,” he continued. “I didn’t see this from my grandmother and think, ‘Oh, this is a good opportunity for a business.’ … [We’re] not simply providing something for someone that just satisfies their basic needs, but providing something for someone that [helps] them to reach their full potential. It’s a big task. It’s a big thing to say that this product will [help] them to reach their full potential as human beings. But this whole process — that is the energy that has kept this process moving forward.”