Volkswagen Magazine

THINK AHEAD

the three from the ideas centre.

A start-up from Dresden is developing an electric hybrid drive for wheelchairs. The three initiators received the Audience Award for their concept at the Gründer-Garage ideas competition. We visited the modern inventors.

Text Nina Fischer-Keese
Photos Guido Castagnoli

Christian Heinz actually had the idea for Manelec 20 years ago. In those days, the ten-year-old liked to spend his time searching for unusual finds at the rubbish dump in his Bavarian home town. Alongside old radios and defective washing machines, he discovered a discarded wheelchair. After using all his energy to manoeuvre the unwieldy, slightly battered vehicle over the uneven ground back to where he lived, he told his father the wheelchair urgently needed a motor.

Gründer-Garage.

The ideas competition calls upon people with entrepreneurial spirit to submit concepts from all areas of society. The participants train together with other founders to develop inspiring pitches for their first ideas. Prizes amounting to a total value of over £75,000 beckon the finalists. In 2014, the retirement consulting service HiRus – Helden im Ruhestand won first place and manelec received the Audience Award. Volkswagen, along with Allianz, 3M, Investitionsbank Berlin and others, is one of the partners for Grunder-Garage, which was founded by Google and the Entrepreneurship Foundation.

Fast forward to late autumn 2014: the 30-year-old with the designer stubble stands on stage in a white shirt, around his neck a green band dangles detailing his name along with that of his start-up, in his hand he holds several gift certificates, which he and his team have just won. Christian Heinz and his co-founders Sebastian Prengel and Janina Münch have secured seventh place from among 839 teams including the Audience Award at the Gründer-Garage (“founder garage”) ideas competition in Berlin. Their idea? An electric hybrid drive for wheelchairs. “We rocked the joint,” posted the graduate engineer that evening on Facebook. “Brilliant”, says Heinz about the explanation video with which the three won the Audience Award in Berlin. It needs to go on the website as soon as possible to attract investors and potential partners.

 

The three founders from Dresden have been promoting their idea to professors, grant donors, and investors for a year now.

» It is motivating to see that our product makes practical sense. «

 Christian Heinz

With a start-up grant from the Ministry of the Economy, they were able to finance their research for the first year. The initial impetus that led to the manelec team’s inception originated from the diploma thesis by Heinz at the Technical University of Dresden. A friend in a wheelchair complained to a member of staff at the institute about the cumbersome drive of his wheelchair. A solution was called for – and Christian Heinz began to research. His goal was to create a model that supports the muscular strength of the wheelchair user with each push, based on e-bike technology. At that time, Sebastian Prengel was taking care of the electrical components of the diploma thesis but he became so excited about the possibilities with the wheelchair that he joined the project and is now developing the control electronics.

Needless to say, their involvement in this topic has also touched the founders emotionally. “I am impressed with how positively wheelchair users are able to deal with their limitations. It is motivating to see that our product makes practical sense,” says Christian Heinz. He interviewed more than 50 wheelchair users for his thesis. The results showed that more than half were very interested in electrical support. “Great idea, because not everyone can afford an electric wheelchair,” said one. “Easier is always better!” said another. With about half a million active wheelchair users who move around using their own physical strength and don’t need to be pushed, the market potential is huge. It was the enthusiasm of the wheelchair users that kick-started the business start-up.

No sooner had engineers Heinz and Prengel made the decision to establish a start-up than they realised organisational support was a necessity. The best friend of Prengel’s wife, Janina Münch, immediately came to mind. “Janina has great organisational skills and brings more than enough energy to our project.”

The team tinker on the prototype at the Institute of the Technical University of Dresden.
The hub is the core of the hub motor.
This circuit board contains the entire control electronics.
The drive supports the wheelchair user with each push.

While Heinz and Prengel work on a prototype, which should be operational in the coming months, economist Münch is responsible for the business strategy. “We are talking with health insurance companies and wheelchair manufacturers. We need to stimulate interest, explore investment opportunities with potential partners and find investors,” says Janina. A name for the product was needed and was quickly found: “manelec”, which comes from combining the Latin word “manus” (hand) and “electric”.

With Münch on board everything is progressing faster as she’s someone who always gets straight to the point. A few years ago, she had doubts about the purpose of her business studies and quickly found a solution: she worked for half a year in a Jewish hospice in Jerusalem. “We all only have a limited amount of time in life,” says the 31-year-old, “and I want to use it for as long as I can.” The energy and assertiveness of the Leipzig resident vibrates through her dark curls as she speaks, making it clear that the three founders work well as a team. “We work closely with each other, but everyone has their own area of expertise. I work with the figures, Sebastian with the control electronics and Christian works on the mechanical implementation.” All three are on an equal footing – of this Münch is in no doubt.

» We are talking with health insurance companies and wheelchair manufacturers. We need to stimulate interest and find investors. «

 Janina Münch

Dressed for business in a light blue blouse and tweed jacket, Münch collects visitors at the entrance to the brick building on the grounds of the Technical University of Dresden. She then boldly leads the way through the disabled entrance at the back of the building. On the uneven, partly unpaved path she explains why the new drive really makes an improvement. “Many with disabled access entrances are really not easy to access at all, since each stone that lies on the unpaved road means more resistance and effort. The path for people with a disability is often longer and passes through difficult terrain.” With the electric driving aid from manelec, wheelchair users should be able to get about more easily in the future.

This can be better explained by the engineers, who are programming, soldering and testing the prototype in their office so that it can hit the streets soon. Just like the workshop of Q, head of the British Secret Service research and development division in James Bond, the small office sits hidden under the roof in a gable next to the men’s toilets. Heinz and Prengel are bent over a circuit board amid laptop and soldering irons, discussing the next steps with their first employee, Friedemann Latsch.

As the most experienced member in the team, Prengel is relaxed, his white shirt sleeves rolled up. His path into research was predetermined at an early stage. The young man from Potsdam tuned up old GDR mopeds, built a micro controller with remote control for the German youth science competition Jugend forscht and, as a student, programmed a filing system for O2. However, the only things the grown man with the dark mop of hair has in common with Gyro Gearloose are his round spectacle frames. Behind them, a keen eye suggests that here is someone who can think at lightning speed.

Prengel lifts one of the heavy wheelchair wheels with his long arms – the individual wheels can weigh up to 12 kgs in some of the competitors’ designs. Manelec wants to make lighter components so wheelchair users will find it easier to load their transport into a car, thus making them more mobile.

» We tested algorithms for cars that can be transferred to the wheelchair. «

 Sebastian Prengel

The radius is to be expanded at the same time. With the manelec drive you can cover up to 12 miles before it needs charging. Prengel studied information systems technology and has remained at the university. He manages a team at the Institute for Lightweight Construction and Plastics and is driven by passion. “We make really cool stuff at the institute. In two projects we tested algorithms for car manufacturers that can be perfectly transferred to the wheelchair.”

This knowledge, coupled with the innovative arrangement of sensors on the wheel and software that can discern what the driver is planning – this is the secret behind the manelec invention. The technicians don’t want to reveal much more, because first they need to file a patent application for the prototype.

The three founders have a detailed plan for the coming year: once the prototype is patent pending, it will need to be tested by the Technical Control Board for it to be approved to take to the road. Patent and certification cost money. A “business angel” has already expressed an interest but the inventors are reluctant to commit to any shareholdings from financiers. With the business plan in hand, Münch and Heinz are on the search for start-up capital.

It would be an investment which will be well worth it – once the drive is functioning smoothly, the manelec team want to offer its product relatively cheaply compared to the competition. The existing drives cost several thousand pounds – the founders are convinced they can offer a more favourable price. The three have no doubts whatsoever about the project. “But should we have no substantial success by the end of next year”, says Prengel, “then we’ll probably have to say, the world is not yet ready.”