A native of Colombia, grandchild of Arab immigrants, Nasser, now 36, had grown up moving several times between Colombia and Texas as his family followed his father’s engineering career. Nasser graduated from high school in his homeland at 18, and he entered college there.
Two years later, a drunk ran a stop sign, smashed into Nasser’s car and changed his life.
“Initially, I couldn’t move anything,” he says during an interview in his condominium not far from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he designs and analyzes launchpad equipment for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (nasa).
“The diagnosis was ‘quadriplegic.’” To recover and continue specialized rehabilitation, Nasser moved to Miami for better medical care than Colombia could offer and for “better quality of life and greater opportunities for the disabled.”
“Within a year, I regained a bit of shoulder and arm strength, but it was a slow process,” he says. “It took me a while to realize that I could go back to school.”
Five years after the accident, he’d gained enough confidence to apply to Florida International University in Miami, where over the next five and a half years he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.
It was for a senior design-seminar project that he first proposed a hand-propulsion system for wheelchairs that allowed users to pull the hand rims of the wheels backward—as if rowing a boat—to move the chair forward. It’s the opposite of the repetitive pushing required by the traditional wheelchair. He accomplished the reversal of rotary motion using planetary gears, a common feature in automatic transmissions and power tools, he explains.
In 2010, Nasser refined his concept and entered the “Create the Future” design contest, sponsored by TechBriefs, a nasa publication. He won.
Inquiries from curious manufacturers followed. Among them was an email from Rimas Buinevicius, an entrepreneur in Madison, Wisconsin, who said he’d once spent eight weeks in a manual wheelchair after breaking a leg and that his shoulders and arms had hurt from pushing his wheels forward.
“I knew from my own experience that there was a need for a better wheelchair wheel design,” says Buinevicius, who runs Madcelerator, a company that helps earlystage firms bring ideas to market.
Nasser is “brilliant” and the planetary-gear design “looked clever and cool,” he says. “Some 1.8 million folks use manual wheelchairs in the us. So there’s a big market out there for these wheels.”
After talking with Buinevicius, Nasser says he redesigned the wheel to reduce even further the risks of repetitive stress syndrome.
“If a typical user pushes 2000 to 3000 times a day, on average, my redesign came out to 330,050 fewer strokes a year,” he says.
In June, Nasser and Buinevicius, who are now respectively chief technology officer and chief executive officer at Rowheels, together entered the annual Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest—and won the grand prize.
The next steps, says Nasser, will be prototype trials by users, which the pair have arranged with the Shepherd Center, a hospital in Atlanta that specializes in research, treatment and rehabilitation of people with spinal-cord and brain injuries.
If all goes well, Nasser hopes Rowheels will roll onto the market late this year.
Brian Clark ([email protected]) is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and photographer and a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper. He also writes for WisBusiness.com, an on-line business publication, and contributes to the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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