Odia engineer adds wings to wheelchairs, turns it into electric vehicle

Diana Sahu traces the journey of Balasore’s Swastik Das and his friends from IIT-Madras who are changing lives of people with locomotor disability with their innovative wheelchairs
A man in a NeoBolt wheelchair | Express
A man in a NeoBolt wheelchair | Express

BHUBANESWAR: Heard of a wheelchair that can be turned into an electronic vehicle (EV) in a minute? An Odia engineer has made this possible. India’s first indigenous motorised wheelchair - NeoFly and NeoBolt - co-developed by Swastik Saurav Das of Balasore, an alumni of IIT Madras, is now making mobility on streets easier for wheelchair users.

Incubated at the TTK Center for Rehabilitation Research and Device Development (TTK R2D2) of the IIT-Madras, while NeoFly is a wheelchair that is customised according to the body type of a person facing locomotor disability, NeoBolt is a motor-powered clip-on which converts NeoFly into a safe, roadworthy vehicle. With one charge, NeoBolt will travel 30 km on city roads and NeoFly covers three to five times more distance with every push.

During his stint at the IIT-Madras, Swastik, a mechanical engineering student, spent a majority of his time in the institution’s Centre for Innovation designing products. For his final thesis, he joined TTK R2D2 under the guidance of his professor Dr Sujatha Srinivasan where they designed and developed a swimming pool lift for the differently-abled persons. “It was during this when I was introduced to the field of assistive devices and developed an interest in it,” said 32-year-old Swastik who graduated from IIT in 2013 and joined ITC. After a two-year stint there, he returned to IIT-Madras to pursue his interest in product design and work in the area of assistive devices.

Swastik (second from right) with his NeoMotion co-founders at the Shark Tank show. 
Swastik (second from right) with his NeoMotion co-founders at the Shark Tank show. 

“Subsequently, TTK Center for R2D2 started a standing wheelchair project and I joined it as one of the designers. For this product, I and my fellow IITians Ashish Sharma, Siddarth Daga under the mentorship of Prof Srinivasan  travelled across 40 locations in India and interacted with 200 plus wheelchair users during 2015. This was when we realised the mediocrity of products that existed for mobility of wheelchair users,” he said. Subsequently, the team formed a startup NeoMotion for research and development of wheelchairs in 2016.

“Every year, five lakh wheelchairs are sold in India. Ninety-five per cent of all wheelchairs sold in India are one-size-fits-all. They restrict mobility, damage health, and lower self-confidence. And only a few wheelchair users can safely and independently transfer into tricycles and modified scooters. Consequently, they are confined indoors. We designed the two products to address this issue,” said Swastik who is the CEO of NeoMotion.

Commercial production of the wheelchairs began in the year 2020 and so far more than 2,500 people across the country have purchased both the devices. In November last year, the Odisha government with the help of city-based organisation Swabhiman distributed NeoBolt wheel chairs to eight orthopedically challenged youths.

Currently, as an outreach partner, Swabhiman is identifying beneficiaries and networking for wider reach of NeoFly and NeoBolt in the state. In January last year, a Puri-based youth Kamala Kanta Nayak created a Guinness World record by covering 215 km in 24 hours in a NeoFly wheelchair.

Similarly, the Tamil Nadu government has procured 300 such wheelchairs for distribution among orthopedically challenged persons from poor backgrounds. The startup has also recently signed an MoU with food delivery platform Zomato to enable employment of 300 wheelchair users in the food delivery services.

“Wheeling a wheelchair is no longer a tedious process for people. Our products are a step forward towards mainstreaming them which was not the case with the conventional wheelchairs. Because with NeoBolt, they do not even need the help of anyone in stepping outside their house,” said Swastik. The project has been funded by Government of India (MHRD and ICMR) and CSR wings of HDFC and Tata.

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