Manual Assist Technology:



Technology That Will Change Mobility As We Know It

For some time now, the buzz has been circulating about the iBOT Mobility System, the first product in development at Independence Technology, a Johnson & Johnson Company. Although the iBOT has not yet received FDA approval, many who use power wheelchairs are anxiously awaiting the arrival to marketplace of this revolutionary mobility device designed to give people with disabilities maximum autonomy. While it is not yet available for commercial distribution, the iBOT will feature multiple unique capabilities. These include the ability to rise vertically to eye level and balance on two wheels, utilize its four wheels to cross rough terrain and travel up and down stairs while also functioning as a standard mobility device.

Despite the anticipated unveiling of the iBOT, it is Independence Technology’s new iGLIDE Manual Assist Wheelchair rather, that is taking center stage. The iGLIDE operates similarly to a conventional manual wheelchair but uses proprietary technology to supplement user input power. To the user, the iGLIDE feels like a much lighter chair moving over a flat, smooth surface regardless of the terrain. Sensors and a microprocessor provide motorized assistance, requiring much less effort from the user than required in a traditional manual wheelchair. The mission of Independence Technology is to develop products and technology applications that help people with disabilities live their lives with greater freedom. With the iGLIDE, Johnson & Johnson extends its tradition of innovative health care service to a community of nearly six million people worldwide who use wheelchairs.

Just as it is, the iGLIDE that will be credited with changing the paradigms of the manual wheelchair, it is Jean-Luc Butel, president of Independence Technology, who is credited with building a new worldwide franchise that will help improve the lives of people with disabilities. Born and raised in France, Butel received his BA in International Relations from George Washington University and his MBA in International Business from The American Graduate School of International Management. Butel began his career with Johnson & Johnson as a general manager. His responsibilities took him to New Zealand, Fiji, Hong Kong, The Peoples Republic of China, Singapore and Japan. He held positions of increasing responsibility, successfully launching a number of new products and establishing new ventures for the Johnson & Johnson family of companies throughout Asia.

Before serving consecutively as president of Becton Dickinson Worldwide Consumer Health Care and Becton Dickinson Japan, he headed up Becton Dickinson Japan’s Microbiology Division. Johnson & Johnson then welcomed Butel back to their family of companies in 1999.


ABILITY Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Chet Cooper, recently spoke with Jean-Luc Butel, regarding the product launch of the iGLIDE Manual Assist Wheelchair.

Chet Cooper: How did you become involved with Independence Technology?

Jean-Luc Butel: I have been with Johnson & Johnson for more than 10 years. They asked me three years ago if I were interested in looking at the start-up of a new subsidiary for Johnson & Johnson called Independence Technology. At that time we were in development stages for the iBOT. To tell you the truth, when I first saw the iBOT my reaction was, “If this technology is for real we have the potential to completely change the way mobility is addressed in the wheelchair category.” I knew a long development process was ahead of us, but I signed up to do it because I have many friends who have disabilities, and I felt that this was a unique piece of technology that could truly revolutionize mobility within this community. Simply, I became involved because I could see the potential in the technology. We have done a lot of work in the last three years, especially improving the software and the performance of the device. In November, we had a great FDA meeting with a unanimous decision to work toward FDA product approval. We are now in the midst of inspection procedures with the FDA and everything is going very well. We expect to have FDA approval by April and then launch the product in May or June.

CC: Tell us about this new product.

JB: The new product that we are launching ahead of the iBOT, and about which we are just as excited, is the Independence iGLIDE Manual Assist Wheelchair. If you’re familiar with some of the other power assist wheelchairs, ours is a wheelchair that is built as one unit from the ground up. It uses technology that will enable people to use a manual wheelchair with the assistance of special sensors and motors so they can travel further with much less effort. This technology has been tested by several customers; they love the handling capability of the product and think it looks terrific. The ability to stay in the manual wheelchair while having the ease and assistance of this manual assist mechanism built into the iGLIDE is a wonderful combination for people who are using wheelchairs. We feel that this technology will help change the entire manual wheelchair category.

CC: Can you give a short description of the iGLIDE and how the technology works?

JB: The iGLIDE Manual Assist Wheelchair really feels like a much lighter chair moving over a flat, smooth surface regardless of the terrain. The user simply pushes the wheelchair handrail as if he or she were pushing a standard manual wheelchair. Then you have sensors and a microprocessor that provide motorized assistance in direct correlation to the needs of the user, requiring much less effort than for a traditional manual wheelchair. The iGLIDE monitors both the user’s input and resulting motion, even when ascending or descending ramps or encountering resistant terrain such as grass, soft carpet, etc.

CC: How do the sensors within the iGLIDE provide a smoother ride than a typical manual chair?

JB: The sensors read the amount of pressure you put on the handrails and basically duplicate that amount. That information is input to the microprocessor. At the same time it is reading the resistance of the terrain. If you’re on a flat hardwood surface there’s almost no resistance to the glide. If you’re on grass then the iGLIDE will feel resistance. It compares the input you give and the resistance measured by the microprocessor and automatically adjusts the speed of the chair. You maintain a consistent feel without having to put forth extra effort.

CC: What type of market response to the iGLIDE is Independence Technology projecting?

JB: My boss is asking me that question everyday. [laughs] To quote the original chairman of the Sony Corporation, “Revolutionary technology can never be researched.” However, the feedback we received on the market research we did was incredibly positive. Let me put it this way, we are very committed to this category.

CC: Jean-Luc, explain the incentive for the research—what primary issues did Independence Technology set out to address in creating this manual assist technology?

JB: There were several points to consider on this, and we began by putting together some of our concerns regarding long-term use of manual wheelchairs. When people use manual wheelchairs they eventually start developing problems such as shoulder injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome. The shoulder was never designed to be a hip. We know that the use of the manual wheelchair over time has a traumatic and negative impact on the physical wellbeing of the user. The greatest benefit of the manual assist technology that you find in the iGLIDE is that in many ways it will eliminate these problems because now you can travel much further with almost no effort, indoors and out.

CC: Are there other user-friendly aspects to control of the iGLIDE?

JB: Another positive aspect of the iGLIDE technology is that you can travel over different terrain and the wheelchair will keep the same speed for you. There is an intelligence system built into our motor and sensors where the chair reads the speed you want to travel and will basically maintain that speed regardless of the terrain. You can go on smooth or uneven surfaces and the chair will automatically keep your speed constant.

Also interesting is that when you go up ramps you can do it almost effortlessly, and as you go down ramps, the chair brakes by itself so you don’t start picking up speed.

CC: Beside causing a repetitive motion problem to the shoulder known as the Manual Wheelchair Syndrome, isn’t there still a benefit to the cardiovascular exercise one gets when using a manual chair?

JB: Regarding the Manual Wheelchair Syndrome, studies have been done by Dr. Rory Cooper, Ph.D., chair and Professor of Rehabilitation Science and Technology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, which indicate that pushing the manual wheelchair is not the right exercise for people who spend alot of time in their chairs. We will always encourage people to find a way to do other exercises rather than pushing the wheelchair along. We understand that for some people it is good cardiovascular exercise and it keeps muscle tone, but there is more damage done than there are benefits. People do need to exercise, but we hope they can find different types of exercises to do.

CC: Does the system allow you to chose whether to move the chair around manually or to use the glide

JB: Great question and one which has been asked on many occasions. Yes, you can use the iGLIDE with the system turned on and benefit from the technology, or you can turn off the system and you’re back to a normal manual wheelchair. Now, granted, it’s slightly heavier because you have the battery and the small motors, but basically—while we don’t believe this would happen—if the system fails you are not stranded. You are able to move around as with a standard manual wheelchair.

CC: Does the system only function in a 100 percent capacity or will it work at different levels?

JB: No, when it’s on its 100 percent, but remember, it’s an intelligence system. So, if you want to go very fast with it, the chair will read that you’re pushing very fast and will give you that speed. If you want to go very slowly, the chair will respond accordingly.

CC: Some of what you’ve said sounds like the concept of the Segway, a personal transportation device that works as a governor to itself to keep a constant speed even when descending. Was the iGLIDE developed with the help of Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway?

JB: No, we bought a company called DeltaGlide, Inc. in November of 2002. As we continued the
development, they came out with the patented proprietary technologies.

CC: There is a need to improve reimbursements for this type of equipment. How does Johnson & Johnson plan to affect policy with iGLIDE?

JB: Our view as Johnson & Johnson is that we would make a major effort to cut the payouts whether it be Medicare, Medicaid or private insurers. We want to make sure this wheelchair is treated in the wheelchair category, but with a different coat and a different reimbursement policy. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but there are tremendous benefits of the technology and I feel we are ready especially on the medical class clinical side of it. The benefit of this technology is that over time it will save money. We plan to ensure the best reimbursement possible for the manual iGLIDE technology.

CC: Will this be a global product launch of the iGLIDE, or do you plan to introduce the product first in the United States and then expand to different countries?

JB: We have spent an enormous amount of time and money developing technology, conducting interviews, visiting rehab centers and talking to users in focus groups. We have done it all. Yet for us to say we know this category would be premature. So, as we roll out both the iGLIDE and the iBOT, in many ways we want to make sure that we walk before we run. We are not going to try converting every user in the nation. These technologies are not for everybody. We want to make sure that we learn the business and the customer’s need even more than we have done so far. Then, eventually, we will go overseas. Johnson & Johnson is the largest medical health care company in the world and just like we do with any of our other businesses we will roll out this product and we’ll see.

CC: How does the iGLIDE compare to other products on the market?

JB: The cutting edge technology on the iGLIDE is what sets us apart from our competition, namely the Yamaha power assist wheelchair. Our chair is lighter and the ergonomic design of the chair is much better, based on the feedback we received from the customer focus groups that we conducted. Again, it’s an entire system, it’s not an add on; it’s not an accessory. The chair has been built to be a manual assist wheelchair, which can be compared to power steering in a car. Eventually the manual wheelchair will be available for the majority of people in wheelchairs using the manual assist technologies of the iGLIDE.


iGLIDE Manual Assist Wheelchair and the iBOT Mobility System and Independence Technology:

(888) 590-7061



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CEO Jean-Luc Butel Talks about iBot and iGlide

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Ampyra Photo by Crush Photo Studios