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The word “widget” often refers to a hypothetical or imaginary device. But Missouri S&T graduate Harry Laswell can easily describe the real-world benefit of his company’s mechanical doohickey.
“Every time we sell a Wijit, it changes someone’s life,” Laswell says.
Pairing two fundamental human inventions, the lever and the wheel, Laswell’s widget, spelled Wijit, is a handgrip lever that attaches to the center hub of a manual wheelchair. Push both levers forward and the chair responds likewise. Want to turn in one direction? Just push the opposite lever forward. To stop, pull both levers inward.
This ratcheting action lessens wear and tear on the wrists as wheelchair users grip a smooth lever rather than repeatedly threading their fingers around the moving spokes and rims for propulsion.
“If the (medical) industry would put lever-drive devices on everyone’s wheelchair, they would improve (the users’) quality of life and over the long term save billions of dollars in cost per year, because they would eliminate these repetitive stress injuries caused by use of the wheelchair,” Laswell says.
Every time we sell a Wijit, it changes someone’s life,” Laswell says.
After Laswell graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from S&T in 1978, he worked for Intel. He invested $200 million of Intel’s money in 41 emerging technology companies as managing director for Intel Capital, the company’s venture capital arm. He then founded American River Ventures, a venture capital firm, in 2001. One of American River’s clients was Wijit, and Laswell took over as CEO in 2011.
Laswell directs American River and his other business interests from a glass-enveloped office complex in Roseville, Calif., in suburban Sacramento, and the Wijit is manufactured just down the road by Pride Industries, a national employer of people with disabilities. Wheelchair user Brian Watwood invented the Wijit after he was hit by a vehicle while cycling.
Matt Ruple is one of the hundreds of wheelchair users using the Wijit. Ruple enrolled at Santa Clara University but was going to drop out because it was too hard to get around campus in a manual wheelchair. Ruple’s doctor didn’t want his condition to worsen by using a powered wheelchair.
“When I was going down the street by myself without anyone pushing me, I felt like I was flying,” Ruple says. “When I got the Wijits, I was given my independence back.”
Laswell says the first goal of Wijit Inc. is to be a profitable business that can develop new products. “The more grandiose goal is, ‘How do we change the standard of care for wheelchair users?’”
Story and video by Terry Barner