U of T startup Braze Mobility is bettering the lives of people in powered wheelchairs.

Powered wheelchairs are large and heavy, yet they need to maneuver through all kinds of tight spaces designed for people on foot.

The difficulty of operating powered wheelchairs can lead to accidents and seem daunting for many people who would enjoy the greater freedom and mobility these devices afford.

U of T startup Braze Mobility has devised a solution—a range of adjustable blind spot sensors that mount to wheelchairs and scooters to help people get around more easily and safely. These sensors provide feedback on the proximity of obstacles, allowing people to navigate challenging spaces, follow social distancing guidelines more easily, and feel more confident.

When Braze co-founder and CEO Pooja Viswanathan was a researcher at U of T’s Intelligent Assistive Technology and Systems Lab (IATSL), she recognized that the technology for powered wheelchairs was not adapting to peoples’ needs. “We saw an opportunity to make powered wheelchairs safe for a greater range of people, giving them back their mobility and independence,” she says.

While there are other companies advancing technology for people in powered wheelchairs, Viswanathan notes that Braze is “really the first in the world to tackle this issue comprehensively.”

Awards, grants and partnerships prove enthusiasm for making powered wheelchairs smarter and safer

That approach led to success. Braze now sells through the largest Canadian and two largest American distributers of complex rehabilitation technologies. Braze is also collaborating with the largest wheelchair controller manufacturer in the world. In 2020, the team received their two biggest investments yet, US $120,000 from the American startup accelerator Techstars and $300,000 from the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation in Toronto.

In addition to a number of other awards and grants, Braze has also earned many votes of confidence from major players in the field. BMO celebrated Braze as a business led by a woman that demonstrated innovation and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Melinda Gates’ Pivotal Ventures, partnered with Techstars for the Future of Longevity Accelerator, featured Braze Mobility at their Demo Day.

In 2020, the Braze team won both the American Occupational Therapy Association Inventors Showcase and the Destination Medical Center’s Assistive Tech Challenge, where they sneak-previewed a new, upcoming system. “MOANA (Module for Obstacle Avoidance and Navigation Assistance) is designed to detect obstacles and automatically correct the speed of the wheelchair to help prevent imminent collisions,” says Viswanathan.

Braze Mobility built their tech in U of T’s innovation network

In developing their technology and preparing to launch, Braze received assistance from various parts of U of T’s innovation network, including the Impact Centre and the Health Innovation Hub (H2i). In 2018, Braze won second place and the People’s Choice Award in U of T’s top pitch competition, the RBC Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“Being part of a Campus Linked Accelerator program is critical, and as a hardware startup, it was ideal when we were bootstrapping,” says Viswanathan. “Working in U of T’s innovation and entrepreneurship network allowed us to keep our costs down by modelling prototypes in-house, and helped us produce a minimum viable product. And coming at this as a scientist, help with the business side was critically important, including how to manage our intellectual property. Attending the many free workshops across U of T Entrepreneurship, I learned how to start a company.”

More than just help, Viswanathan says she also found community. “Being in the ecosystem is all about building a network—not just to take from the network but to give back to it. I love being part of it.”

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