That’s How These Brothers Roll: A Songwriter, An Engineer, And Their Innovative Approach To Wheelchair Safety
“His smile was as bright as the August sun / When he looked at me
As he struggled down the driveway / It almost made me hurt
Will don’t walk too good / Will don’t talk too good
He won’t do the things that the other kids do / In our neighborhood”
Recorded by Martina McBride and co-written with Tom Douglas, songwriter Barry Dean’s first single God’s Will was named to Rolling Stone’s 40 Saddest Country Songs of All Time. It was inspired by the premature birth and mobility struggles of Dean’s daughter Katherine.
Katherine has inspired tens of millions of listeners who have been touched by the song, but she is also the catalyst for LUCI, an award-winning smart technology product that attaches to standard power wheelchairs. It improves safety with sensors that prevent the wheelchair from running into walls, people, or objects, and stops it before unexpectedly tumbling over a curb: hazards that are everyday realities for wheelchair drivers. In 2003 there were more than 100,000 emergency department visits in the U. S. for wheelchair injuries and that number is likely closer to 200,000 in 2022. 55% of wheelchair riders report at least one tip or fall in the past three years. A drop of as little as two inches can cause significant injuries when a 300-pound wheelchair falls on its rider; most standard curbs are six inches. Power wheelchair crashes can be as forceful as car crashes, without the safety features of an automobile.
“We’re a young company and LUCI has only been on the market for a year, but we have users in over 40 states already and we have aggregated, anonymized data that show that over 10,000 collisions, drop offs or tips are prevented each week.” Barry Dean
Billed as “smart wheelchair technology for the most fearless people on Earth,” LUCI was founded by Dean and his engineer brother Jered Dean, a former professor at Colorado School of Mines, design consultant, and product developer of innovations as varied as complex weapons systems and medical devices. The danger of power wheelchair accidents hit close to home when a close friend’s mother was badly injured in a tipping accident, and Jered made it his mission to re-engineer Katherine’s wheelchair to be safer and smarter.
LUCI’s smart mobility technology has received innovation awards from prestigious organizations like Time, Popular Science, Fast Company, and CES. Not satisfied to stop at preventing mobility accidents, the Dean brothers have three new innovations they are launching this year: LUCI+AIR, a real-time, smart air cushion monitor that helps mitigate against potentially life-threatening pressure injuries; LUCI Ramp Assist, assistive technology that allows a wheelchair with LUCI to autonomously drive up narrow ramps like mobility vans; and LUCI View, which provides wheelchair users a 360-degree view. LUCI technology connects wheelchair users and caregivers via an app. It also works with Alexa and Google Assistant to alert them about the status of their battery life via voice command.
LUCI is an inspiring story of a father’s concern, an uncle’s love, and two brothers’ relentless pursuit of innovation to increase safety, independence, and quality of life.
You founded LUCI to provide smart wheelchair technology that improves safety, mobility, and independence for wheelchair users. Tell us more about the process of growing LUCI from a wish, to an obsession, to founding the world’s first and only smart technology platform for power wheelchairs.
Barry Dean: In our case we were turning a vision into a reality. I think a lot of times people start a company and then go look for a vision. In our case, we had a really clear view of the lived experience. We spent the first year developing what we call the “42 stories” of all the things we wanted the wheelchair to do in the next 20 years. We realized the pain points and got started on providing an answer. The pain point we see, and refer to most, is that the chair has not been living up to the potential of the person in the chair.
We took the time to understand the dreams and desires of people, then write those in story form. The intellectual property and technology were developed around that. So it’s been a clear vision and that pointed us towards the technology platform and then the creation of a company we knew we had to found.
Jered Dean: We didn’t do the textbook minimum viable product. It was more of really understanding what users and their teams were looking for and trying to create the technology platform and operating system that could support the future. The innovations are always serving the dreams of the 42 stories, which include not just the person in the chair, but their team. We know life is a team sport with their clinicians, their rehab engineer, and their caregivers. We really looked at that holistically because we have multiple customers, and we’re going to try to have that chair be an ally, a teammate.
Barry Dean: LUCI isn’t just “good tech for wheelchairs.” LUCI is ground-breaking technology for anyone addressing advancements in robotics or mobility as a service, in factory situations and the unmapped world. We’ve got a millimeter-wave radar Jered developed with Texas Instruments. We’ve developed a new way of doing ultrasonics. There’s sensor fusion with stereo vision cameras. To be able to stand up something this precise and durable that’s essentially powered by a boat battery, at this price point – the whole thing costs less than one lidar – is really something. Sometimes the story and mission overshadow the engineering accomplishments because it’s so cause oriented, but the engineering and technology developments stand on their own.
There is an inspiring video on your website that describes why each of your test chairs has a name. Tell us more.
Jered Dean: The names on our test chairs come from the users’ families we bought them from. We’re grateful they shared their stories with us. The people behind those names represent very different diagnoses, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to multiple sclerosis to cerebral palsy. What we’re focused on is a lot more than the diagnosis, it’s the lived experience of being in a wheelchair and the team aspect of connecting and managing independent mobility and user health.
Barry Dean: If you’re working with the Bruce chair and you know Bruce’s story, you may have never met Bruce, but you’re inside that story of what he dreamed his wheelchair could do, and the ways that it could and should enrich his life.
I’ll give you an example. One use case was about having a visualizer just like a car would have, that shows you around the space of your chair. In Katherine’s case, her spine is fused, and she can’t turn around. We were able to develop that and provide it as an over the air update.
Jered Dean: We started with the basics of turning a dumb wheelchair into a smart wheelchair, and now we’re in the fun phase where we’re continuing to make LUCI smarter and more capable and provide those upgrades with over the air updates.
You’ve inspired – and been inspired by – many people. Can you share some particularly touching stories of LUCI users?
Jered Dean: There was one eight-year-old boy, his parents had been trying to find a way to allow him to drive a power wheelchair and independently explore his world for five years. And they just hadn’t found a good way to do it. Training was difficult and safety was a concern. Within 15 minutes of using LUCI, he was successfully driving around in a clinic, talking to people. That ability to independently move himself is so important both for his confidence and his development. He finally had freedom to move around; before, somebody always had to move him.
We’ve seen that same kind of experience for some veterans who’ve had traumatic brain injuries. LUCI becomes the difference between being pushed around in a manual chair or being independent in their community in a power chair.
Barry Dean: I’m thinking of a young woman who was a very nervous driver and was afraid to be in public settings. She had been injured many times in her chair before LUCI. We learned that there are twice as many people going to the emergency room for wheelchair injuries than are injured in motorcycle accidents in the US each year. LUCI has not only helped keep her safe, which is awesome, but it has helped increased her confidence. That confidence has allowed her to get out in her community and she just got her first job.
We’re a young company and LUCI has only been on the market for a year, but we have users in over 40 states already and we have aggregated, anonymized data that show that over 10,000 collisions, drop offs or tips are prevented each week. Those are all potential injuries. To be able to have that impact is a pretty stunning thing.
Barry, you had a successful career as a songwriter to country music greats like Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw, Luke Combs, and many more before founding LUCI. To what extent do you feel your experience in the creative arts contributes to the success of LUCI, and how does that balance with Jered’s engineering expertise?
Barry Dean: It’s been a real honor to get to work with Jered and I always say it would be a really short story if it was “songwriter wants to do something to help his daughter.” That would have been about the extent of that story without Jered and his team and what they’ve created.
We say internally that LUCI’s message about hope and joy and that you’re being heard. I think there are a lot of families like mine and users like my daughter and her friends who didn’t feel like they were being listened to or served. When you’re writing songs and creating music, listening and really understanding people, their stories and their lives, and connecting with them, is a big part of that. And so I think that music and LUCI share that aspect of listening, looking for the future and having an impact. I love writing songs and still do, but LUCI impacts the future at a scale that is just as important as music to me.
Jered Dean: One of the things I’ve learned from working with Barry is how much overlap there is in the creative processes. We look at it through different lenses between the technical creativity and artistic creativity but putting those two together has been amazing.
What obstacles and setbacks have you experienced, and what advice do you have for other founders working to bring technology to serve others?
Jered Dean: We launched during the pandemic, which was an interesting thing. LUCI is a piece of hardware that mounts to an existing power wheelchair, but then utilizes software and an operating system. Because there is that hardware component we needed to get into clinics and demonstrate it, show that it exists. The wheelchairs that we mount to weigh 350-450 pounds without a person, and they aren’t easily transported.
“We are always immediately looking for the door that’s open when other doors close.” Jered Dean
So, we used our connection to the music business. We realized performers’ tour buses were just sitting around during the pandemic. We loaded the wheelchairs and tools underneath and toured doing demos in some top clinic parking lots around the country. It allowed us to move forward cautiously and respectfully.
We are always immediately looking for the door that’s open when other doors close.
Barry Dean: I do think sometimes the mission overshadows how phenomenal and interesting the technology lift is. The other thing is that most people are not aware that this is a real market. You’ve got a million more people spending their lives in power and manual wheelchairs in the US than are driving electric vehicles. It’s a big group of people who had been overlooked. It is an industry that’s a little stuck in the status quo and ripe for disruption. And there’s a person in that chair who has been clamoring for real innovation, and we’re going to talk with that person and give them the dignity of treating them as a customer.
We’re raising our first round of funding and that will close in the next couple of months. That’s been a whole new experience. We’re growing fast and we’re really excited about it.
One last question: what is the meaning of the name LUCI?
Barry Dean: Katherine is a huge Beatles fan, and her favorite song is Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. In the very beginning, our cloud development team, led by Jared’s wife, named themselves Lucy, given the cloud/sky connection. It stuck.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.