University of the West of Scotland
Engineering and Technology
Highlands & Islands
Andrew Slorance is a pioneer in the development of wheelchairs. He founded Carbon Black Systems Limited, the company behind the revolutionary light-weight carbon fibre wheelchair that he himself designed. Having set up a new company in 2015, Phoenix Instinct Ltd, his ultimate goal was to design an “Intelligent System” wheelchair that would have a responsive centre of gravity and other Intelligent System (IS) features – a total revolution of the wheelchair as we know it.
The idea was an intelligent manual wheelchair featuring a smart Centre of Gravity (CoG). The system would self-adjust the wheelchair’s CoG so it was always the same as the user’s CoG. The result would be a wheelchair with very little weight on the front wheels giving easier pushing and turning while also being very rearward stable. For the first time ever, a wheelchair would be entirely in sync with the user’s body movements.
Andrew wanted to work in collaboration with academics who had expertise in intelligent system engineering and carbon fibre engineering to undertake a feasibility study to determine if his idea of incorporating cutting edge smart systems into an old concept – the manual wheelchair – was practical and achievable.
The analysis would shape Phoenix Instinct’s application to the Toyota Mobility Challenge* prize fund as well as demonstrating to Toyota that the company had academic support for the project.
Phoenix Instinct was referred to Interface from Highlands & Islands Enterprise and, by exhibiting great tenacity in finding the most appropriate academic partner for the company’s requirements, Kirsty Buchanan, Business Engagement Executive at Interface, was able to connect Andrew to the University of the West of Scotland (UWS).
UWS have a long history of collaboration with external organisations to help drive innovation and deliver real economic, environmental and societal impact. Improving the health, well-being and mobility of wheelchair users through development of the next generation of SMART wheelchair technology represented both an academically challenging and worthy endeavour which UWS were happy to support. The project was supported by the School of Computing, Engineering and Physical Sciences, whose expertise in advanced composites, rapid prototyping (including 3d printing) and product design was utilised throughout the project.
The company achieved their goal in working with an academic partner to develop the Toyota Mobility Challenge application and, as a result, were one of five finalists successful in receiving a grant of $500k to develop their concept; as well as the opportunity to attend workshops, receive mentoring opportunities with engineering experts, and collaborate with end-users. The finalists ultimately pitched their concept to Toyota to win a prize fund of a further $1 million. Phoenix Instinct were crowned the ultimate winners at a virtual, live-streamed event in December 2020, winning the $1 million prize fund to help bring its Phoenix i wheelchair to market.
* The Challenge invited engineers, innovators and designers to submit ideas for game-changing technologies to improve the mobility and independence of people with lower-limb paralysis. Central to the Toyota-supported challenge was the need to work with end-users to develop devices that would integrate seamlessly into their lives and environments, while being comfortable and easy to use.
With continued support from Interface, Phoenix Instinct further developed their award-winning technology in partnership with UWS through a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP). The company’s workforce and sales of its products doubled, and additional profits of more than £1 million, directly attributable to the KTP, were forecast over the next five years (from late 2021).
A second KTP aims to bring the manufacture of electronics used in the production of the wheelchair inhouse by 2024. Both KTPs were jointly funded by Innovate UK and the Scottish Funding Council.
Andrew Slorance at Phoenix Instinct said: “Working with UWS KTP partnership brought the company specialist skills, knowledge, and University support that have been fundamental to the success of the project. The KTP funding through Innovate UK is a fantastic programme that we recommend highly.”
Dr Tony Leslie, Senior Lecturer in the School of Computing, Engineering and Physical Sciences at UWS, said: “It has been a pleasure to work with Andrew Slorance and Dr Jakub Rycerz on this KTP project. Andrew’s design is a step change in wheelchair development. Andrew has driven the project to ensure the project team never lost sight of how the ongoing design decisions could impact on wheelchair users in their daily lives, and that has been key to the project’s success.
“Recognition must also be given to KTP associate Jakub, whose contribution and commitment has been exceptional throughout the project, developing a number of innovations to ensure Andrew’s vision was realised.”