Rough Draft Ventures is proud to support Molly Farison and Amos Meeks of Lilypad Scales as they are taking a weight off of the lives of people with disabilities. Their product, the Lilypad Wheelchair Scale, is a thin, lightweight, and affordable mat enabling wheelchair users to weigh themselves at home. The scale stores the weight of the wheelchair so that users can simply roll onto the mat and take their weight in just a few seconds.
Why Weight Matters
Managing weight is a critical issue for wheelchair users because it prevents hospital visits and increases independence. People who use wheelchairs are twice as likely to be obese compared to people who don’t, largely due to the difficulty of exercise, as well as lower caloric needs due to reduced muscle use. This is a huge problem, since every pound they gain is another pound they need to lift when they want to get in or out of bed, or onto the toilet, or into the shower. For this reason many wheelchair users struggle with weight management, and yet many have no way to weigh themselves conveniently and affordably. Wheelchair scales on the market cost upwards of $1500 and are bulky and made of metal, making them not an option for the 4 million wheelchair users in the U.S. who live at home. The Lilypad Wheelchair Scale, however, is a viable option, at a retail price of $500.
Approaching the Problem
The idea came out of a design class called “User Oriented Collaborative Design” that both Farison and Meeks took as sophomores at Olin College of Engineering in Needham. In this course, students learn about the design process by choosing a particular user group and then focusing on understanding and fulfilling one of their unique needs. By starting with a market and then designing a product to meet their needs, product ideas from the class are guaranteed to have a market. Meeks chose wheelchair users as a user group because he was interested in learning more about their needs. He and his team interviewed many different wheelchair users around the Boston area about all the different aspects of daily life. The “aha moment” came when one person told a story about how he really wanted to lose weight, so he drove to a Weight Watchers meeting that he had heard had wheelchair scale, only to find they didn’t have an accessible scale there. He was incredibly frustrated with the prospect of losing weight without access to a scale to help him track it, and yet there were no scales available to him.
At the end of the course, Meeks’ group produced a poster presentation, a table of requirements, and a mock up of the new scale, which at that time looked like a carpet with batteries. As friends who had also taken the course, Farison and Meeks often spoke about the course and both were excited about the wheelchair scale idea, something that was truly needed but also possible to make with current technology. As both were interested in starting companies before leaving school, they thought they’d give it a shot.
From Idea to First Functional Prototype
While Meeks studied abroad the next fall, the two continued their conversation and picked up the project again in January of 2013. Their first step was to create a fully functional scale that was both thin and accurate. They began by experimenting with different tools and items they found around Olin College. With physics experiment kits, they could quickly try out different weighing methods, gathering ideas on what technologies might be most effective. By early June, they had produced an early proof of concept from readily available materials. They continued tinkering with tools, searching for a load cell that could measure weight with a reasonable degree of accuracy, while also being thin and affordable to manufacture.
The team was able to develop their business model through participation in the MassChallenge accelerator program during the summer of 2013. As neither team member has a business background, they spent their time learning about market research, pitching, building relationships with investors, and day-to-day approaches to running a business. Meeks stated, “As an engineer, I think that a lot of people discount the importance of marketing, business plans, etc. By working on this project, I have gained a large appreciation of this and now understand how many choices there are, and the work that goes into it. It is not just the idea or technology that makes an amazing product.”
Throughout development, Meeks and Farison have continually tested their technology with consumers, gaining feedback and reconfiguring the technology in cycles. The team built strong relationships with wheelchair users through the User-Oriented Collaborative Design class, as well as with mentors such as Dave Estrada, the Executive Director of the Greater Boston Area National Spinal Cord Injury Association. They find that users are often very happy try the scale and to give advice. When attending conferences, expos, and networking events, they find that many people they meet know someone who uses a wheelchair, and offers to put them in contact.
As of summer 2014, both team members are now working full time on Lilypad Scales. They are looking to pilot test five fully functioning scales in the homes of their customers in hopes of concluding the summer with a product they can take to market. A constant hurdle the team faces is reducing early production costs. They have started working with some U.S. manufacturers that can produce the few plastic and metal components that are non-standard. The work will be finding the least expensive combination of what the team can produce themselves, and what can be manufactured in bulk. Currently the team is compromising with 3D printers to make small numbers of plastic parts for the five scales.
Amos and Molly -- you continue to amaze us with each new step you take in such an underserved market. Rough Draft congratulates you on your success thus far and we know you will continue to change the lives of people with disabilities one scale at a time.