Scottish inventor who vowed to ‘revolutionise the wheelchair’ wins $1m prize

A Scottish innovator and entrepreneur who vowed to “revolutionise the wheelchair” as a teenager has won a $1m (£740,000) prize to make his dream a reality.

Andrew Slorance, 51, from Nairn, Scotland, saw off competition from the US, Japan and Italy to win Toyota’s Mobility Unlimited Challenge with his Phoenix i wheelchair.

The intelligent chair automatically adjusts its centre of gravity to ensure the user can be agile and stable at the same time.

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The competition, from the Toyota Mobility Foundation and Nesta Challenges, was launched in 2017 in an effort to encourage innovation in assistive technologies for those with lower-limb paralysis.

Andrew Slorance, 51, from Nairn, Scotland, saw off competition from the US, Japan and Italy to win Toyota's Mobility Unlimited Challenge with his Phoenix i wheelchair.
Andrew Slorance, 51, from Nairn, Scotland, saw off competition from the US, Japan and Italy to win Toyota's Mobility Unlimited Challenge with his Phoenix i wheelchair.

Efforts from other finalists included a smart wearable simulator that uses artificial intelligence to support muscles at the right time, while exoskeleton technology was exhibited in a number of entries.

Mr Slorance broke his back when he was 14 after falling from a tree. He said his early experience motivated him to one day make the wheelchair a more desirable item.

“I remember lying in the hospital bed in Aberdeen and an occupational therapist came in and she wheeled a wheelchair up to my bed,” Mr Slorance said.

“She said ‘Andrew, I’ve got your new wheelchair for you. I hope you will agree it’s rather a nice example’.

“I looked at this thing and I thought: ‘You’ve got to be kidding right?’ The first day I went out in that wheelchair was without doubt the worst day of my life.

“I felt completely immobilised because the thing was so big … I suddenly realised everybody was looking at me in a way people had never looked at me before.

“Fairly soon after that I swore that, if no-one else did it, one day I would revolutionise the wheelchair to make it desirable, high-end tech, that actually gave you a real advancement in life.”

With his company Phoenix Instinct, the Scotsman went about creating the chair that he hopes will do just that.

The Phoenix i’s ultra-light carbon fibre frame aids manoeuvrability, while the chair features a powered braking system which detects when the user is going downhill, managing the descent automatically.

Five awards of half a million dollars were given to finalists in January 2019 to develop their prototype devices, while the one million dollar prize money that Phoenix Instinct has secured will go towards bringing the company’s innovation to market.

“I nearly didn’t do it,” said Mr Slorance of the competition. “I just thought ‘I haven’t got a chance in this, a little company in the north of Scotland’.

“And I thought ‘no, this is what you do Andrew, you have to do this. This competition is made for you’.

“Your wheelchair is the world’s first perception of you. If that thing looks awesome and hi-tech, that puts forward a positive perception.

“We live in a time when our fridge freezer can be smart, it can tell us the milk we put in has gone out of date. Yet the wheelchair is the thing you actually need every day of your life … and it’s still got the technology from 1984.

“This is a game changer.”

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