Arch professor talks better wheelchair design

Susan Farricielli, a sculptor, industrial designer and lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture, is founder and manager of Kinetic Innovative Seating (KiSS), LLC, a company through which she hopes to manufacture and sell a more ergonomically friendly wheelchair. The News spoke with Farricielli about KiSS, her wheelchair and her future plans.

Q What inspired you to pursue creating a more ergonomically friendly wheelchair?

A In graduate school, I studied … seating. And I did my thesis on a seat that allowed the body to move instead of remaining stagnant. And a few years later, I realized my grandmother was in a wheelchair, and I realized she was suffering from symptoms that have to do with lack of circulation and [issues] related to poor seating. So it was really my grandmother.

Q When did you start working on creating the design, and what was the process like?

A The wheelchair I started in 1992. In 1995 I got a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and that was actually the first boost I had to spend time developing the wheelchair.

Q Was this about the same time that you started Kinetic Innovative Seating Systems (KiSS)?

A Well, I started a company called KiSS but I never did anything with it. I actually started Kinetic Innovative Seating Systems officially last year.

Q Tell us a little bit more about the mechanics of how the chair works and how it’s better than a standard wheelchair.

A There [are] two components: there’s a seat back and there’s a seat base. Wheelchairs usually have cloth seats … so you take out the cloth seats and put in these seats. They allow the body to shift weight side to side and up and down. When the body moves, the motion is initiated at the joints, your hip and your joint, so you’re flexing at the joint.

Q How is having that motion on the joints beneficial?

A It promotes circulation, and the shifting of the weight dissipates the concentration of weight that is generally under the sit bones. That’s where people get sores. And then there’s the seat back … with a flex point that allows you to lean back without tipping over. So, you get to flex your spine; you get to move without tipping over. It’s very subtle. The idea was to make an incremental change that was would be a big improvement to comfort.

Q Is there anyone who’s been influential in helping get this off the ground?

A Oh, Yale, definitely Yale. I mean, I pretty much sat on this and every now and then I would put the wheelchair out, work on it a little, move it forward. There were two things that propelled it forward. One is I got an investor, an angel investor, and before taking her money I went over to SOM and sat in on some classes and that was a big eye-opener. I always thought, “Oh, why don’t I make this?” And I realized when I actually sat down and really worked on a business plan with a team how incredibly complex it was. It wasn’t just money — it was having the plan. I didn’t want to take my investor’s money and then just use it without knowing where I was going with it. Having that opportunity was incredible. The Yale Entrepreneurial Society … helped me find people and got the word out. SOM let me take classes, and the students that I worked with, the graduate students, were brilliant. Each one of them contributed something special. Gaylord Hospital [in Wallingford, Conn.] was great; they let me use their [physical therapy] department as a sounding board, so I went there and interviewed them.

Q By when do you aim to have the design of the chair ready to sell?

A I can sell it now. We’re just waiting to get medical clearances and medical reimbursement. We have to get it cleared by the Food and Drug Administration, and then you have to get a healthcare reimbursement code so that its paid for through insurance. It’s a product that is driven by the medical insurance market.

Q What led you to pursue industrial design?

A That’s my degree; I’m an industrial designer. I went to Rhode Island School of Design and got my master’s there in 1989. I’m a sculptor, but I’m always looking at the mechanics of things and always taking things apart. I’m an artist, but I’m not a free spirit. I’m much more of a problem solver.

Q Are there any other projects that you’re working on right now?

A Well, my little release project that I’m doing is I’m designing wine labels, and then I have another project that I just got a patent for as well. That’s an equatorial sundial, a full-functioning sundial. But KISS is my main thing right now — it’s full time. I’m actually going to take a leave of absence at Yale this year [to work on it]. The next plan is to make the chair for soldiers coming back from Iraq. Right now we’re experimenting with about 10 systems — ideally we’d like 100, but [10 is] based on the budget — to give to soldiers coming back.

Something like 96 percent of people in wheelchairs in the United States are on welfare. And there’s lots of reasons why, but most of them just want to lead lives where they can have a job. The reason they can’t is that they’re uncomfortable in their wheelchairs, they’re uncomfortable sitting motionless for so long. If I could get them in a chair where they can do what everyone else does, that will be a great accomplishment.

In your office chair at home, it has springs, it moves, and this started coming around in the 1970s, so then why do you put a person in a wheelchair for the rest of their life that doesn’t move? So I had to do this — my sister used my chair, my father used my chair, and now both of them have died, so I have to do this. It’s not just about me having a nice wheelchair at the end of it all. I want to leave something behind that’s useful.