Japanese smart wheelchair Whill secures $45M to expand into North America, Europe

Japanese smart wheelchair Whill secures $45M to expand into North America, Europe

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WHILL_Satoshi-Sugie
Satoshi Sugie, Co-founder and CEO of Whill

See the original story in Japanese.

Tokyo-based Whill ( US / Europe ) developing personal mobility aids announced on Tuesday that it has successfully raised 5 billion yen (around $44.5M US) from 13 companies: SBI Investment, Daiwa Securities Group, Whiz Partners, Mistletoe, Endeavor Catalyst, Japan Material Technologies Corporation, ES Networks, Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Venture Capital, the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan, Eight Roads Ventures, Nippon Venture Capital, DG Innovation, and Mizuho Capital.

This brings the total amount raised by the company to 8 billion yen (about $71.2M US). Details about this round, such as investment ratios were not released. The funds procured this time around will be used to further expand the sales of Model Ci in the U.S. and Canada, and to begin sales throughout Europe starting with the U.K. and Italy.

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Whill is a mobility product that supports the elderly and people with disabilities affecting mobility. The company began selling its first product Model A in 2014 in the U.S., and began sales of its second product Model Ci in April of last year.

Additionally, the company has plans to launch a MaaS (Mobility as a SaaS) platform business which will further strengthen its organization. Whill, which previously focused on individual sales, will position itself as a “mobile service” to be offered to businesses with users who may have issues with mobility, such as sports facilities and airports.

We interviewed CEO Satoshi Sugie and asked him about the details of this new project to promote development. (Questions are in bold, responses are by Sugie.)

WHILL

First of all, in regards to the new model being sold. How is it different to the first model?

It’s light. It can be broken down into three parts and packed into a car. Because most people use a car to get around in the US, we adapted to meet these needs. On the flipside, the power is weaker than the first model. And with the price as well, the first model sold for nearly 1 million yen (about $8,900 US) while this new model is less than half that at 450K yen (around $4,000 US).

In terms of purchasing, I think depending on the country there may be subsidies available…

Not in the US. In Japan the entire cost may be born depending on the insurance for people with disabilities. Also, the elderly are eligible for subsidies that cover 10% of monthly rental fees.

And the sales performance thus far?

Of the numbers we’ve published, the first model has sold over 1000 units. We are aiming to sell 10,000 units of the second model.

How about the user feedback?

(One user who has difficulty walking) shared that they are able to take their dog for a walk now. The second model can fit in a car, so we already have feedback that it could be used in emergencies.

I’d like to ask about the new service. With MaaS, there are companies aiming for a mobility platform and talking about “ID business (user billing)” and “data sales”, but what about Whill’s strategy?

I describe it as becoming public transportation for sidewalks. It’s a so-called sidewalk version of Uber. Our first step is to offer services at airports and amusement parks.

Can you elaborate?

Until now, the staff has supported people who have difficulty moving, like the elderly, in public facilities like airports. But in the United States, such operation costs are becoming a burden.

I see. Whill will be placed in these areas for people to share. In the press release it says users are free to use them and they will be equipped with automatic driving technology to return them after use. Are you developing this technology yourselves?

Usually I would answer this with, “No comment,” but we plan to work with partner companies to promote the R&D of automatic driving and the return function, etc.

It seems like many companies are developing automatic driving mobility.

That may be true–for carrying luggage, but I believe we are the only company developing mobility aids that carry humans, while simultaneously developing software.

Mobility sharing services for bicycles and recently for scooters with Bird, are gaining popularity. Any plans to take to the streets?

Currently, none.

Any thoughts on the business side of things?

We aren’t just selling mobility aids, but a fleet management service that can be controlled by the facility. We also provide options such as maintenance. It’s a so-called monthly subscription service.

Any plans to expand the business to general users?

It may be possible at amusement parks.

Thank you.

Translated by Amanda Imasaka
Edited by Masaru Ikeda