The ultra-lightweight, intelligent Phoenix Instinct wheelchair from the UK wins $1 million in prize money through the global Mobility Unlimited Challenge by the Toyota Mobility Foundation in partnership with Nesta Challenges. 

The Mobility Unlimited Challenge was launched in 2017 to drive innovation in the field of assistive technologies for people with lower-limb paralysis. Around the world, millions of people are living with lower-limb paralysis, with the most common causes being strokes, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis. While there are no statistics on paralysis worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates there are 250,000 – 500,000 new cases of spinal cord injury globally every year, making this challenge even more impactful.

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At its core, the three-year challenge was developed to highlight the importance of collaboration with end-users and create inventions with the disability community in mind. It supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, specifically goal #10 of reducing inequalities in supporting devices that help people with paralysis better access society for economic, social, educational and other opportunities, and it additionally demonstrates Toyota’s vision of producing happiness for all.

“Mobility means freedom. It means liberation from being limited in life. As we believe at Toyota, when we are free to move, we are able to fully participate in society, and I’m excited for each of these devices supported by the Mobility Unlimited Challenge, particularly the winning device, because of how it will allow so many people to better do what they want to do,” Sir Philip Craven, member of the Board of Directors at Toyota Motor Corporation and former President of the International Paralympic Committee shared.

The challenge called for talented engineers, innovators, and designers from around the world to submit their designs for groundbreaking devices, integrated with the latest technologies, to enhance the mobility and independence of end-users. Over eighty teams from 28 countries around the world entered.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) led the assessment of the entries and provided mentorship alongside a team of Toyota subject matter experts, and the winner was chosen by a panel of expert judges from all around the globe, including Professor Linamara Battistella, Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine doctor at the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil), Winfried Beigel, Director of Research and Development for Otto Bock Mobility Solutions (Germany), Dr. Mary Ellen Buning, President-elect for the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (United States), Dr. Kay Kim, President of NT Robot Co (South Korea), Dr. Eric Krotkov, Chief Science Officer at Toyota Research Institute (United States), Eric LeGrand, disability rights advocate (United States), Sophie Morgan, television presenter and disability advocate (United Kingdom),  Ruth Peachment, Occupational Therapy Clinical Specialist at the National Spinal Injuries Centre (United Kingdom),  Matthew Reeve, Director of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation (United States), Dr. Yoshiyuki Sankai, President of robotics company Cyberdyne (Japan), and Dr. Lloyd Walker, professional rehabilitation engineer at Tech4Life (Australia).

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Finalists included teams from the United States, Japan, Italy, and the United Kingdom, with devices ranging from a hybrid exoskeleton on wheels to a fleet of semi-autonomous electric devices to assist manual wheelchair users when traveling. Team Evowalk from the US produced a smart wearable muscle stimulator that sits below the knee and uses artificial intelligence to support these muscles at the right time, aiding in rehabilitating walking and preventing falls for people with foot drop. Team Qolo from Japan developed a standing mobility device that integrates exoskeleton and wheelchair functions. It supports the function of standing and sitting with a passive assist mechanism for people with lower limb paralysis. “Innovation is the result of team effort, and we will continue to widen our possibilities thanks to the impulse given by the MUC,” Kenji Suzuki from team Qolo said. Another exoskeleton offering fast, stable and agile upright mobility was presented by Quix, another team from the US. And team Wheem-i: Italdesign from Italy showed a wheel-on semi-autonomous electric device that provides ride-sharing for wheelchair users. It is primarily designed for micro-mobility and is usable on a variety of surfaces.

The winner of the challenge, however, has been announced with Phoenix Instinct from the UK receiving $1 million to further develop their intelligent ultra-light carbon fiber wheelchair, bring it to market, and ultimately transform millions of lives in the disability community for the greater good.

Designed by Phoenix Instinct, the Phoenix i uses intelligent systems to automatically adjust its center of gravity, making the ultra-lightweight carbon fiber frame extremely stable and easier to maneuver. It uses a front-wheel power-assist to reduce painful vibrations and minimize strain on the user. The chair’s intelligent powered braking system automatically detects when the user is going downhill and adjusts to manage the user’s descent.

“Winning the Toyota Mobility Unlimited Challenge is incredible for Phoenix Instinct and for wheelchair users. The wheelchair, as we know it, has been technologically unchanged for decades. The funding we received through the challenge allowed us to prove smart technology makes for an easier to use and safer wheelchair with the potential for a suite of new features,” Andrew Slorance from Phoenix Instinct said. 

Key specifications for choosing the winning invention included devices that will integrate seamlessly into people’s lives and environments while being comfortable and easy to use, enabling greater independence and increased participation in daily life. The judging criteria were based on innovation, insight and impact, functionality and usability, quality and safety, and market potential and affordability.

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“For too long, the disability community has faced restricted mobility and accessibility. The coronavirus pandemic has forced a change in attitudes towards remote working, showing that it is possible to be present and productive at home.  However, the pandemic also highlighted the need for non-disabled people to have a better understanding of the importance of mobility for all. We hope that these devices will improve the mobility of people across the world and contribute to a more inclusive future,” Liz Vossen of Nesta Challenges ends. 

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