When Tish Scolnik saw an ad for the “Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries” class in a hallway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology her freshman year, she had no idea how much it would shape her career. She was still figuring out what she wanted to major in, and thought this class would teach her more about mechanical engineering while satisfying her interest in medicine. 

Now, Scolnik is the CEO of GRIT, a startup that makes the Freedom Chair—a new type of wheelchair that allows its users to get across all types of terrain.

It was because of that class that Scolnik and Mario Bollini (now GRIT’s CTO), first began thinking about the many ways wheelchairs can be limiting.

“They limited people to the pavement and didn’t really afford an opportunity to get off the pavement onto grass or onto a trail,” Scolnik said. “There are some sort of off road chairs, but they’re very expensive and not used that much.”

Scolnik, Bollini, and other students that were involved knew that a successful, all-terrain wheelchair would have to encompass a few key factors: it would have to be robust and rugged enough to work on rocky terrain, it would have to be affordable, and it would have to be easy to maintain and repair.

The students first focused on research, but instead of beginning by looking at a traditional wheelchair’s design, they focused instead on the human body and “fundamental biomechanics,” Scolnik said. Basically, info on the upper body of how much power it can generate in certain positions.

“Think of lifting weights at the gym,” Scolnik said. “It’s easier when lifting in certain directions. How can we best use that for propulsion?”

That led to the Freedom Chair’s lever system, where bars that you push are connected to the wheels, rather than relying on pushing the rims to move forward. The levers let you get more leverage and torque to push yourself over obstacles, Scolnik explained.

The next thing they needed to know was exactly what types of terrain people wanted to travel on, and so they conducted surveys. From that information came the decision to use as many off-the-shelf bicycle components as possible.

“All the moving parts are standard bicycle parts, so you can service it or customize it at a bike shop,” Scolnik said. That includes the option to swap out the automatically included mountain bike wheels for beach or snow tires, too.

In the process of designing the Freedom Chair, Scolnik said they were continuously prototyping, testing, and building different designs, and when they graduated from MIT, they realized that their prototype was an actual product that people wanted. It was thanks to that class, and MIT’s emphasis on allowing students to be hands-on, that led to that.

"You’re learning the theory but actually putting the theory into practice as well, by actually making something,” Scolnik said. “The school’s motto is ‘mens et manus,’ which means ‘mind and hand,’ so it’s a combination of the theoretical and practical.”