Four University of Minnesota students have come up with a new way for people to move around. They took the wheeled walker that many seniors use and reimagined it for a younger clientele.
Growing up, Steven Bleau saw how multiple sclerosis complicated his dad's mobility. Bleau said he noticed how others with the same condition used mobility devices when he volunteered at the MS Society’s youth camp.
"You'd see all the parents using a wide range of products that helped with their mobility and other symptoms,” he said.
Bleau says while the products were helpful and improved quality of life, there was something missing from the helpful, ubiquitous walker with wheels.
"Rollator walkers are typically designed with elderly patients in mind," Bleau said.
He began tinkering with mobility aids in his design class at the University of Minnesota and began to redesign the rollator walker for younger users.
He brought his redesign to a course at the Carlson School of Management, called entrepreneurship in action. There he joined three other classmates, Morgan Kerfeld, Rick Pradhan and Beth Urbanski.
The group loved the idea of a rollator walker for younger people and began meeting with potential customers and physical therapists.
Morgan Kerfeld, co-founder and head of operations for Telo, says the team’s redesign of the rollator walker has one key difference.
"We decided to flip the frame from living in front of you to behind you,” she said. “So it has integrated back support allows you to have proper posture, but also gives you enough room in front of you so that you can take natural strides and maintain your proper walking posture and habits."
Kerfeld said having the walker in front generally allows people lean over and put pressure on something that can roll out from under you.
There’s another aspect to the redesign.
"By putting the device behind them, they're now seen first versus their rollator," Kerfeld said.
The project has helped the students win several competitions and grants. They've since graduated and started their own company, Telo.
Now they are adding technology to measure speed, distance and weight reliance on the device. The upgrades are meant to give accurate readouts of physical therapy progress.
The Telo team’s current prototype is made from a humble, non-load-bearing material: bent PVC piping.
Bleau, Telo’s chief development officer, says they're honing the designs for the seat, the connecting parts and the wheels.
"So these are called omni-directional wheels. And they allow for 360-degree movement while staying fixed,” he said.
They hope to build metal devices by early spring and begin testing them.
The team came together in the virtual classroom last December, and never actually met each other in person until April. Now, they try to get together when possible, mostly at Minneapolis breweries, because they don't have a set office space.
"It's like a really random group of people that got put together that just ended up working out really well together."
Rick Pradhan, the chief financial officer for Telo, says they've learned to be flexible. They've also watched direct-to-consumer products thrive, across age groups. The group plans to sell the Telo rollator in the same way.
He says the hope is to allow customers to customize their colors and accessories, building it online.
"Just every single step that we can take to just give them a little more power and kind of embrace themselves. I think it's it speaks to like what we want to do here. But also what's been missing for the last few decades," Pradhan said.
Their advisor, John Stavig, program director Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at Carlson, said the students figured out what bound them together.
"In the entrepreneurship class that they were in together, we kind of challenged them to find a problem that they believe is worth solving,” Stavig said “And their team pretty quickly coalesced around doing something that was helpful for individuals with disabilities."
If all goes as planned in testing and development and with a crowdfunding campaign they hope to start early next year, they expect to sell to customers by fall 2022.