Tish Scolnik was an undeclared freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006 when she saw a flyer for a class called Wheelchair Design for Developing Countries.
The professor, Amos Winter, pushed his students to come up with a wheelchair that could navigate rough terrain and be nimble enough for indoors. Scolnik became so inspired by the challenge that she, Winter, and several classmates designed a wheelchair that borrows heavily from bicycle mechanics. Riders, though, use their hands to crank the chair up and over rough terrain.
“People tell us about the hikes and trips they went on that otherwise they couldn’t, the week that they spent on the beach that they couldn’t before,” Scolnik said. “That type of feedback is what makes us want to keep doing this.”
Scolnik, now 28, and several classmates and Winter started a company called GRIT, for Global Research Innovation and Technology in 2012. They run the company as a so-called social enterprise, meaning they are pursuing a social mission like a nonprofit does, but can still make money.
Dubbed the Freedom Chair, most of the 2,000 wheelchairs are a $250 version that have been distributed in Haiti, Tanzania, India, Guinea, Nepal, and Easter Island with the help of organizations such as the Red Cross and World Bank.
The wheelchairs operate on a chain system similar to a bike’s, although instead of pedals, riders push a pair of long levers using their hands. Scolnik and Winter, along with classmates and cofounders Mario Bollini and Ben Judge, had the idea after studying research on biomechanics from the US Air Force that showed the bench press motion is very efficient and makes good use of upper body muscles.
The chairs have mountain bike tires almost twice as wide as standard wheelchair tires and a rubber front wheel to absorb shock and distribute weight. They are designed to cruise on terrain from sandy beaches, to grassy fields and hiking trails. The entire wheelchair is even made of bike parts, so owners can get them repaired at any bike shop.
“Your wheelchairs are your legs. You can’t afford to be out of commission for a period of time,” said Scolnik, the company’s chief executive.
The US version of the Freedom Chair retails for $2,995, and GRIT estimates it has 175 riders using it around the country.
The summer after her freshman year, Scolnik and several classmates traveled to East Africa for an MIT fellowship and saw firsthand how difficult it was for people who couldn’t walk to get around.
When they decided to start GRIT in 2012, they settled on having a social goal as central to the company. That means they don’t run the business to maximize profits, like a typical for-profit.
About 6 percent of startups in the United States are social enterprise companies, according to a report in June from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a consortium that includes Babson College.
“The traditional legal framework did not accommodate a for-profit corporate form that would also allow the pursuit of a non-financial mission of the company,” said Robert Esposito, an associate at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and lecturer at George Washington University’s law school.
For-profit social enterprises can accept money from nonprofit foundations if their missions line up, but most raise private equity like any other startup.
In its first year, GRIT won a $100,000 prize from MassChallenge, and two years later raised $80,000 from a Kickstarter campaign. Its also won $400,000 from the United States–India Science & Technology Endowment Fund. And in an endorsement of its business potential, GRIT has raised $650,000 from a number of angel investors in the Boston area.
As she pushes GRIT to get bigger, Scolnik also wants to see her company’s chairs in the hands of more veterans.
“Our riders are all over the country,” Scolnik said. “We’re figuring out the best way for a small business with limited resources to reach them effectively.”