Leveraging over a decade of research, AgeTech Collaborative™ startup participant Braze Mobility has developed blind spot sensors that can allow any wheelchair to automatically detect obstacles and help users navigate them.
Pooja Viswanathan, founder and CEO, sat down with us to tell us more about the company and how Braze’s solutions can ensure users, their families, and therapists achieve their goals for independent mobility.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Will you tell us about Braze Mobility?
At Braze, we have developed the world’s first blind spot sensors that can be attached to any wheelchair and transform it into a “smart” wheelchair. The system is an array of sensors that detects obstacles and provides alerts to the user through intuitive lights, sounds and vibration. These three modalities are very simple and intuitive.
Can you say more about how the system works?
There’s an array of larger sensors that are typically placed in the rear of the wheelchair, and there are two smaller sensors placed in the front of the chair, which help clients navigate doorways, elevators and other tight spaces.
Then there’s a module we call the controller, and it’s placed where the client can see it. It has lights that give a warning of an obstacle, and colors indicate proximity: A yellow light comes on when an obstacle is within two feet; then at one foot, a red light comes on to indicate danger. This is when using the short-range mode; there’s also a long-range mode where the distances double. These distances are customizable and can be adjusted anywhere from two inches to six feet.
There is also auditory feedback, so if someone gets in the danger zone, they'll hear audio alerts as well.
Finally, there are up to three pads that provide vibration alerts. You place one on the left, one in the middle, and one on the right. Say you’re going through a doorway, and you’re too close on the right, the right side of the chair will vibrate.
It sounds very intuitive.
The biggest advantage of the system is that it provides actionable feedback without taking any control away from the user. This is very important, because wheelchairs are often an extension of a person’s body, and having full control over their own movements and navigation is incredibly important to the experience. A lot of our clients have very little control over many other aspects of their lives, so their mobility might be one of the few things that they really do have control over, and they want to retain that control.
Can you say more about that?
When I first went to an assisted living facility, I saw all of these older adults slumped over in manual wheelchairs. They couldn’t self-propel because they didn’t have the strength, but they weren’t allowed to use motorized wheelchairs because of safety concerns in the home.
Mobility and independence, which are things that my grandparents had all their life, were so critical to their quality of life. I started to see that not giving people the opportunity for independent mobility is a violation of human rights. Unfortunately, it’s not seen that way; we see mobility as a privilege — and we need to change that narrative. One of the ways that we can do that is through technology.
When you think of those scenarios where mobility is being denied, such as in assisted living facilities, it's obviously not being done as a violation. It's being done because of safety concerns for the residents. I know for a fact that when therapists have to take chairs away from people for safety issues, it’s very difficult for them to do. Our sensors can help remove the need for therapists and others to face those decisions.
How have AARP Innovation Labs’ accelerator and the AgeTech Collaborative™ helped Braze Mobility?
There are four different ways in which AARP and the Innovation Labs have provided us value. One is their huge member audience; we were able to get feedback on what people thought about our description of our technology, so we could find out what was resonating.
Second, we were able to tap into the GLG network. We could tell the team, “We want to interview people with this kind of profile” — decision-makers at long-term care facilities, for example, or director-level salespeople at wheelchair provider companies. And within a few days we would have five or six names that fit the profile, with the times they were available for interviews. Within a week, we were talking to these people, getting insights that we could then incorporate into our marketing materials.
Third, we got a comprehensive review of our website and other customer-facing content. We focused on a single page: Because therapists are such a driver in recommending our technology to clients, we wanted our therapist-facing page to be very clear. So after interviewing a therapist through the GLG network, we did some prototyping of that therapist page, and got feedback that helped us improve the usability of our website.
Fourth, with the help of Tuff, we were able to create a comprehensive growth marketing strategy over the course of just eight workshops.
What’s on the horizon for Braze Mobility?
We do a lot of work with veterans, and we have a big collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and their innovation ecosystem that we’re wrapping up now. In January, we’ll be at the CES 2023 tech and innovation conference in Las Vegas, where we’ll be at the AARP booth to demo our technology.