Whill is a Japanese startup that is developing ‘Personal Mobility’, a next-generation wheelchair. The startup announced today it has raised $1 million from Itochu Technology Ventures (ITV), 500 Startups, Sunbridge Global Ventures, Wingle, and individual angel investors. The individual investors include 500 Startups’ Dave McClure and Facebook engineer Eric Kwan.
With these funds, the startup plans to start mass-production of its first model and start marketing it as well. The first lot of 50 machines will be exported to the US market using a direct sales channel, with shipping scheduled to start in early 2014.
The startup was co-founded by young engineers who previously worked with top Japanese manufacturing companies like Nissan Motors, Sony, and Olympus. To date, there has been no shortage of buzz surrounding this young company and its brand new machine.
Many of our Japanese readers may have learned about them on Campfire, a Japanese crowdfunding site. Their prototype was unveiled back in 2011, and was subsequently chosen by 500 Startups for their incubation program, and now raising a large sum of money this time around.
According to the startup’s CEO Satoshi Sugie, the wheelchair industry has seen no remarkable evolution since 1932 when the device was invented in Los Angeles. Shinji Asada, the director at ITV, pointed out that the target market for the company’s prototype has great potential:
We actually received other investment proposals from hardware startups. But Whill was different. They built a prototype and showed it to us when asking us to invest. This had a significant impact on our decision.
Regarding the market potential, it’s probably around 20 billion yen ($200 million) in Japan. Prior to using the device, we need to remove impediments in buildings. However, our interview conducted in the US indicated that there is a great need for this in the market. That’s why we decided to get involved.
According to the Whill team, the development of hardware prototypes is much easier than what it used to be.
The prototype for the first model cost about 5 million yen ($50,000). But if a big company does the same thing, it will probably cost 10 times more. Behind this cost reduction there are many factors, such as a high rise of open source software and parts manufacturing using 3D printers. Some tech shops in the US can rent manufacturing machines in shared spaces. These changes made us possible to procure parts faster and cheaper.
The startup is based in Tokyo and San Francisco, but their factory is located in the Tokyo’s suburb of Machida. It took me a while to get to the location from the nearest train station, but the factory looked super fun — almost like a sort of secret base for children. It will be interesting to see how the company can evolve the world mobility market from this corner of the capital.