INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of STACY ZOERN
If you’ve ever had to purchase a car, then you know that your options are limitless: regular or hybrid, compact or full-size, convertible, SUV, minivan… Unfortunately, wheelchair-bound individuals do not have the luxury of choosing an auto because there is simply no market catered directly to them. Stacy Zoern, an author-turned-attorney-turned-entrepreneur, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when she was two. While Stacy quickly knew that spending her life in a wheelchair was never going to stop her from achieving her dreams, she found herself limited by a lack of proper (and affordable) vehicles. That’s when she decided to bring one to the market herself.
Oh, and if you’re an innovator and think you’ve got an idea — like Stacy’s — that will change the world, check out NissanInnovationGarage.com; they’re providing two outstanding innovators with $50,000 to jumpstart their ideas. (Plus a new Altima. Plus a Kickstarter campaign.) It could be you, so don’t hesitate! You might be our next BR!NKer.
First off, I have to admit that, as someone who knew nothing about transportation for wheelchair users, I was blown away by how little had been done so far.
I know! There are 3.3 million wheelchair users in America, and no simple way for them to drive a car.
How did you do it?
When I was 19, I started driving a modified van to accommodate my wheelchair. The van cost $30,000, and the modifications cost about $50,000. I was paying an outrageous amount of money and never even felt safe on the freeway going 70 mph. Eventually, my solution after graduating from law school was to find a job downtown and live there so as to make things more convenient. This came with its own set of limitations: I was basically stuck in a ten-block radius, got bored, and would be limited by things like rain.
Which is terrible, especially considering how great of a city Austin is.
Exactly! So I looked around and came across this organization in Budapest, Hungary, that had created a car called the Kenguru which was designed to be operated by a wheelchair driver. It was electric, went 25 mph, could be driven for 60 miles, and they had just finished developing it.
The latest incarnation of the Kenguru
Were you approaching them as a consumer or as a potential business partner?
Initially, definitely as a consumer. Unfortunately, around that time, the economy crashed, and they could not get the bank loan needed to further manufacture it. I decided to bring the company over to the United States and incorporated Community Cars in mid-2010.
Let’s get technical. How does the Kenguru work, exactly?
It’s very simple: you first push a button in order to activate the raising of the hatchback and the lowering of the ramp, which allows you to roll in your wheelchair. Then, once you’re inside, everything is operated with a handlebar. It’s 100% electric and battery operated. It has a range of 60 miles and a top speed of 25 mph. New models are planned every year for the next four years. The two main innovations we are looking at are the ability to add another seat and being able to control the car with a joystick so people like me can drive!
The Kenguru in action
So you’ve never driven it?
Never! [laughs] The Kenguru has handlebars, which I can’t control since I have limited upper body strength. Having a joystick or a steering wheel would make all the difference. Also, I can’t even fit my wheelchair inside the Kenguru right now! Ask me again in two years.
In addition to the second model, what are some hopes for the future?
I’d eventually like to also have a separate 501(c)(3) that will assist people in purchasing mobility devices. I don’t ever want mobility to be a barrier.
Now I have to ask: did you have any interest in the auto industry prior to doing this?
Not at all! [laughs] I had done many things before getting involved with Community Cars: I even wrote a memoir called “I Like to Run Too” when I was twenty, which took me six years to get published and talks about my disability. With the Kenguru, I just saw an opportunity to solve a problem that had been limiting me — and millions of other people — in my professional and social life.
How can our readers contribute to your success?
Two important ways to help. First, we are currently crowdfunding on RocketHub to build a Kenguru that includes a joystick and can fit a power wheelchair. There are 10 days left, and any amount helps. Second, spread the word if you happen to know any investors or contacts that might be interested in the Kenguru. You know, every time an article comes out about our work, we get emails from individuals all over the world asking for availability. I just hope that we are able to provide them with the vehicle that they need.
Share your everyday innovation and you could win a $50,000 grant and the most innovative Nissan Altima ever. We’ll even unleash the winning ideas on Kickstarter. After that, anything can happen. Get started by entering your idea now at NissanInnovationGarage.com