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7 Canadian companies helping people with disabilities live more active lives

A new MaRS initiative with Toyota Mobility Foundation is helping founders scale accessible solutions.

For the estimated 8 million Canadians living with disabilities, there is no shortage of barriers to everyday tasks. Whether it’s navigating public transit, interacting with others or living independently, many of them are struggling. In fact, in a recent survey, Statistics Canada found that more than 50 percent of Canadians with a disability reported that their needs are not being met when it comes to devices, medication or healthcare services. And with an aging demographic and growing number of people living with disabilities, the need for assistive devices is becoming ever more urgent.

To help speed up the development of promising devices, MaRS and the Toyota Mobility Foundation have launched the Mobility Unlimited Hub. Seven personal mobility companies have been selected to join the inaugural cohort. As part of this special program, these early-stage ventures will receive funding, mentorship, market intelligence, PR opportunities, commercialization workshops and networking.

“These are passionate founders who are all driven by purpose. Each of them are solving different problems — this program will have a huge impact on individuals who face barriers,” says Jason MacFarlane, vice president of the innovation ecosystem at MaRS. “It’s exciting to help grow these ventures and put these solutions into action.”

With devices that help wheelchair users move around more confidently, support the Deaf community or assist injured and disabled children, the inaugural Mobility Unlimited Hub cohort is poised to break down barriers. Here are the innovative startups in this first cohort.

Leading the charge

Not everybody using a power wheelchair has the ability to plug in their mobility device themselves, which is why Montreal-based AWL-Electricity has developed a compact floor mat that automatically charges a mobility device as soon as it’s parked on top. The mat’s built-in electricity transmitter connects to a receiver that’s fitted onto the user’s power wheelchair, which allows them to independently charge their devices without wrangling long cables, finding a hard-to-reach outlet or requiring assistance.

Inspiring independence

Tracey and Gary McGillivray’s entrepreneurial journey began in 2019 when their elderly father started to have balance issues. Unable to find a device that could help their dad, the siblings decided to found Axtion Independence Mobility. They developed a device that looks like a walker, but the motorized seat can descend to floor level and rise up to a height of two feet, allowing users to pick themselves up after a fall, lower themselves onto a toilet seat, reach for something in a cupboard or simply provide a comfortable place to sit.

Providing backup

Toronto-based Braze Mobility’s blind spot sensors can be retrofitted to any wheelchair, helping users navigate tight living spaces, crowded public transport or anywhere they might need to change direction. Similar to a vehicle’s assistive parking device, Braze’s sensors alert the user with a flashing light, a light vibration or a beeping sound when they’re getting close to an object or person.

The technology is debunking some mobility myths, says CEO and co-founder Pooja Viswanathan. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about whether someone who’s legally blind can operate a power wheelchair,” she adds. “One thing that’s amazing is some of our clients are legally blind and power wheelchair users.”

Viswanathan says she and her team are particularly excited about the connections they’ll make through the Mobility Unlimited Hub. “It’s always difficult to find people who are mobility experts. To find an accelerator that’s focused on mobility is something we’ve needed for a long time,” she says. “This particular hub is going to have a good diversity of both early- and later-stage startups, so it’ll be nice to get that peer mentoring.”

A new direction

The founders of Cheelcare launched the company in 2015 after witnessing family members struggle with inadequate mobility equipment. Today, the Richmond Hill–based company creates two products: Companion and Curio. Companion is a device that attaches to the front of manual wheelchairs, allowing users to zip around as if they’re on an e-scooter. And Curio is an all-terrain wheelchair that can navigate dirt and grass, self-level, rise up and down, as well as tilt in all directions to help users transfer in and out of their wheelchair.

Clear communication

When Mehdi Masoumi saw sign language interpreters on televisions during COVID updates, he recognized there was an unmet need for inclusive communication — and not just during emergency situations. He founded Deaf AI and started developing technology that could translate speech into sign language in real time. It was, however, a challenge. “Many deaf people don’t understand spoken English because it’s not their first language — sign languages uses a different linguistic structure,” says Masoumi, who underscores that closed captioning is often on a delay, and when it does appear on screen, it’s often appears too fast for the average deaf person to keep up with. And it’s difficult to train AI models on sign language. “These are conceptual and expressive languages,” says Masoumi. “You convey concepts through facial gestures and body movements.”

Deaf AI’s animated, on-screen avatar interprets speech in real-time, signing as a sign language interpreter would. Right now, the company is working with airport authorities to incorporate this technology to better communicate boarding calls and gate changes.

A futuristic vision

Vancouver-based Seleste Innovations has created a pair of smart glasses that helps blind and visually impaired people explore the world around them. The slim, black-framed glasses have a built-in camera and speaker that are connected to a smartphone assistant. Users can ask it to read menu options, describe works of art at galleries, tell them what’s on the shelf at the grocery store, and even search for their keys around their home. In addition, the glasses can describe surroundings in unfamiliar environments, noting where the furniture is, what colour the walls are and where the nearest exit is.

Step by step

Trexo Robotics, based in Mississauga, has developed a robotic gait training device to help children with any range of physical disabilities improve walking skills, mobility, strength and endurance.

Unlike existing devices that require users to bear weight, the Trexo’s built-in robotic legs can help safely initiate walking movement while correcting a child’s steps and gait along the way. The device is also controlled by a tablet, allowing parents to control the speed, monitor whether one leg is stronger than the other and celebrate step count milestones.

Without these devices many of the users are “either sitting or lying 24/7,” says Horowitz, head of marketing at Trexo. “So this gets them up and moving.” To increase accessibility to the product, the company has developed rent-to-own programs, and has teamed up with hospitals, schools and clinics where parents can bring their children to try out this solution for free.

Learn more how the Mobility Unlimited Hub is helping assistive mobility device companies help people live more active, independent lives.

Photos: Jenna Marie Wakani, Gab Harpelle

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MaRS is the world's largest urban innovation hub in Toronto that supports startups in the health, cleantech, fintech, and enterprise sectors. When MaRS opened in 2005 this concept of urban innovation was an untested theory. Today, it’s reshaping cities around the world. MaRS has been at the forefront of a wave of change that extends from Melbourne to Amsterdam and runs through San Francisco, London, Medellín, Los Angeles, Paris and New York. These global cities are now striving to create what we have in Toronto: a dense innovation district that co-locates universities, startups, corporates and investors. In this increasingly competitive landscape, scale matters more than ever – the best talent is attracted to the brightest innovation hotspots.

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