Video produced by Julie Walker, videography by Brian Wilcox
A group of BYU students are literally opening doors for wheelchair users.
They’ve created a device that attaches to the motor on automatic doors so that they open automatically as a wheelchair user approaches. Wheelchair users need only download an accompanying smartphone app and have their phone in a pocket or in their backpack to activate a door once they reach a 5-foot radius.
“It's the first time that a door will actually be more accessible to someone in a wheelchair than to an able-bodied person,” said creator Morgen Glessing, an entrepreneurship major in the BYU Marriott School.
Glessing and fellow BYU students Samuel Lew, Josh Horne and Jake Parry created their patent-pending device after they learned the challenges wheelchair users have with automatic doors. The group interviewed 254 wheelchair users over several weeks and discovered that the large, round, silver buttons that are built to provide access for disabled people are often problematic to use.
They also learned:
- Nearly 80 percent of those they surveyed have trouble with handicapped-enabled doors
- 1/3 of buttons are out of ADA code; they are too high or too low or difficult to access
- Some wheelchair users don’t have the physical strength to push the buttons
- Published research shows at least 1/10 of buttons don’t work
- Buttons can be on the wrong side of the door, causing the door to close before a wheelchair user can enter
“When you talk to someone in a wheelchair about their daily life and struggles, you learn so many things an able-bodied person never realizes,” Glessing said. “Our wheelchair-using friends simply want to go about their day as you and I do.”
Thanks to major support from a Crocker Innovation Fellowship and mentoring from the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology and the Ballard Center, the students’ ideas evolved into a working device and a viable business model, currently named Portal. The current device is a microcomputer that hardwires directly into the door motor and then communicates via Bluetooth with anyone using the smartphone app.
Along the way, the Portal team has won praise and several awards, finishing first place at the Utah Entrepreneur Challenge (and winning $40,000), the BYU Student Innovator of the Year Competition (and $6,000), the BYU Business Model Competition ($5,000) the BYU Mobile App Competition ($3,250). They were also a National Finalist at the TCU Values and Ventures Competition.
More importantly, Portal has earned praise from wheelchair users who have demoed the device — some of whom have friends meet them at every doorway throughout the day to gain access to buildings.
“The biggest thing that I absolutely love is that I don’t have to worry about the door slamming on me and making a big scene,” said recent BYU grad and wheelchair user Kylie Webster. “It’s embarrassing for people like me when that happens. Now I don’t have to worry about it being open in time and I don’t have to worry about going out of my way to push a button.”
Glessing said the Portal device will be on 150 doors across five institutions by the end of April. If everything goes as planned, they will have the product on 1,000 doors at 10 locations by the end of summer.
“It’s been rewarding because we’re not only creating a sustainable business, but we’re creating a business that directly improves the quality of someone’s life,” he said.