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October 13, 2008

Wheelchair brake maker rolling along

Here's some from a piece out of St. Charles that I have in today's edition:

Jerry Ford, a farmer living near St. Charles, has a goal: Put the brakes on falls caused by wheelchairs.

His house has been turned into a business, with sales and management offices in former bedrooms. The sound of pounding in the basement means Safe-T-Chair automatic brakes are being installed on wheelchairs. About 50 to 200 chairs can roll out of that basement in a day.

What kind of sales growth is the company targeting for 2009?

“We’d like to quadruple this year’s sales,” Ford says. The business has sold 1,000 wheelchairs with one or more of the three specialty brake models on them thus far in 2008.

He and his chief executive officer of marketing, Robert Gumbusky, see a market in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals and in-home care. Nationally, preventable falls reportedly caused suffering to thousands of people and they cost $20 billion last year. That dollar figure is expected to grow to $32 billion by 2010.

Ford and Gumbusky think the Safe-T-Chair brakes can improve many lives by preventing some of those falls, bringing those numbers down.

So how does a man who farms 160 acres of corn and soybeans in Winona County become an award-winning inventor and manufacturer of an automatic wheelchair brake system?

His son Zack Ford first noticed the problem while working with elderly people at Samaritan Bethany. He had seen first-hand that some seniors were suffering falls due to not setting the brakes on their wheelchairs.
Zack Ford asked other staff members why they didn’t use an automatic brake on the wheelchair?

“They said there wasn’t such a thing. A nurse laughed and said, ‘Why don’t you invent one?’” Zack remembers.

“So we did,” chimes in his dad.

When presented with the problem, Jerry Ford approached it like any mechanical challenge on his farm. He went to his shop and made what he needed.

What he came up with on April 24, 2004, was a simple spring-controlled brake that automatically locks a wheelchair when a person stands. The design keeps it from getting out of adjustment, like other chair brakes do.

The device won him many awards at the 2005 Minnesota Inventor Congress in Redwood Falls, Minn.
Since then, he has developed more products — an automatic attendant handle brake and an automatic incline brake system.


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I have watched Jerry Ford demo this chair the last two years at The Cruise (fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House). It is one of those deals where you slap your head and think "Why didn't someone come up with this a long time ago?" It is simple, yet it works. This will save a lot of people from a lot of falls. I wish him all the luck in the world.

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