Student's wheelchair innovation nets $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Illinois prize

3/14/2011 2:17:00 PM

According to Scott Daigle, a graduate student in mechanical science and engineering (MechSE), there are 2.2 million Americans in wheelchairs and 73 percent of them develop shoulder problems as a result. To combat this, Daigle designed a prototype wheelchair that uses the gear-shifting technology similar to that of a bicycle—an idea good enough to earn this year’s $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize.

Never too big to cash! (l to r) Associate Dean Michael Bragg, Scott Daigle, and Andrew Singer, director of the Technology Entrepreneur Center at Illinois.
Never too big to cash! (l to r) Associate Dean Michael Bragg, Scott Daigle, and Andrew Singer, director of the Technology Entrepreneur Center at Illinois.
Daigle, the founder of IntelliWheels Inc., was named the fifth annual winner of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize last Wednesday at an awards ceremony at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications Auditorium.

“It’s just so incredible when you think about how many great people have come before me with such incredible inventions at this university, I’m just so proud to be following in their footsteps,” Daigle said.

Daigle’s gear-shifting wheelchair idea began to come to fruition when he was a senior undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering at Illinois. Working with MechSE professor Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler and Kinesiology and Community Health professor Jacob Sosnoff, Daigle was able to develop a prototype before his first year of graduate school. Using a system of sensors automatically shifts gears in order to adapt to the environment, Daigle’s wheelchair takes away a considerable amount of shoulder strain, all while making it easier to travel on steep inclines.

“I think it says a lot about Scott that he would devote himself to a project that helps people that society has largely decided to ignore,” Sosnoff said.

Daigle talks about his innovation at the awards presentation.
Daigle talks about his innovation at the awards presentation.

IntelliWheels’ products are not yet for sale, but Daigle said the cash prize will go a long way in helping the company get off the ground. IntelliWheels has also developed Caster Skis for wheelchair use in snow, and Daigle said that he hopes to begin distributing his products after some more usability testing.

“It’s so wonderful to get this kind of support from the community, and now we have this overly large sum of money to push us forward,” Daigle said.

Daigle was a finalist for the Lemelson-MIT prize last year, and he is grateful that he was awarded the top award and the cash prize this time around. 

“It’s great to have a second chance,” Daigle said. “The press and the publicity were great last year and it helped us out a lot, but this time, it was everything times ten.”

In his presentation, Daigle gave credit to his parents for giving him the inspiration for IntelliWheels. His father, who passed away five years ago, often had Daigle assist on home improvement projects as a child, while his mother’s work as a physical therapist showed Daigle the need for a more user-friendly wheelchair.

The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is the latest in a long line of Daigle’s awards. Cash prizes from places such as the Cozad New Venture Competition and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance have helped Daigle develop IntelliWheels from an idea into an actual product.

The ceremony also recognized the other finalists for the award: Zeba Parkar, graduate student in materials science and engineering, and Colin Lake, a senior in industrial design.

Administered by the Technology Entrepreneur Center in the College of Engineering, the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize is funded through a partnership with the Lemelson-MIT Program, which has awarded the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize to outstanding student inventors at MIT since 1995.

Contact: Stephanie Larson,Technology Entrepreneur Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/265-5456.

Writer: Jay Lee, Engineering Communications Office.

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Rick Kubetz, editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-7716.