June 21, 2013

News & Features

Wheelchair user who couldn't find vehicle starts a company to build one

New York Times News Service

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Stacy Zoern, the co-owner of Community Cars, poses with a Kenguru car in April. (Ben Sklar / The New York Times)

For years, Stacey Zoern, a Texas lawyer who lives alone and uses a 400-pound power wheelchair, yearned for more independence. Because of a neuromuscular condition, Zoern, 33, has never walked, and for a while drove a custom van. But the van was destroyed in a crash, and she didn't have $80,000 to buy another.

"I was feeling frustrated and stagnant," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Austin. "I was so sick of being dependent on others to drive me places, but even when I had a vehicle I never felt safe driving a huge van at 70 mph on the highway. I wondered how the technology might have changed since then."

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Drivers of the Kenguru enter through a hatch and control the vehicle with handlebars. (Ben Sklar / The New York Times)

Two years ago, she began searching the Internet, using the phrase "wheelchair accessible transportation," and came across a company called Kenguru, in Budapest. Its small, light, electric vehicles of the same name sounded perfect.

"I was ecstatic," she recalls. "This vehicle will change my life. This is exactly what I want."

When Zoern's emails to the company went unanswered, she picked up the phone and called the chief executive, Istvan Kissaroslaki. He recalls their conversation this way: "I was on my way home from work when she called, and we spoke for 45 minutes. I would normally have told her, 'Get in line.' We had just lost all our bank financing, 2 million euros, after the collapse of Lehman Bros. I told her to call me back in about four years."

Instead, in an unusual international story of determination, friendship, innovation and entrepreneurship, the Austin-based company that the two have since formed, Community Cars, expects to produce its first vehicles this year. The so-called neighborhood cars will sell for about $25,000, and buyers may qualify for zero-emission or vocational rehabilitation tax incentives.

Kenguru details
  • A wheelchair user enters the car by opening the rear hatch with a remote control; a ramp lowers as the hatch swings up. Motorcycle-style handlebars control the vehicle, though Zoern hopes to offer joystick controls within a couple of years.
  • As a neighborhood vehicle, the Kenguru has a top speed of about 25 mph and generally cannot be driven on highways. Travel range is estimated at 45 to 60 miles, with a charging time of eight hours.

Zoern envisions the Kenguru giving wheelchair users the freedom to leave home spontaneously, without having to rely on friends, family or transportation services.

The cars have a steel frame with an outer body of fiberglass laminate. The interior is vinyl and molded plastic. They are 7 feet long — nearly 2 feet shorter than the smart fortwo — and 5 feet high. There is no room for a passenger. The car weighs just 900 pounds, batteries included.

Community Cars hopes to sell 400 vehicles in the first year of production, Zoern says, eventually increasing to 2,500 a year.

As Kissaroslaki, a Hungarian-born, U.S.-educated veteran of the European auto industry, sought new backers for his company, he and Zoern kept trading emails and talking. "I came to Texas and fell in love with Stacey's personality and passion for this project," he says. "She's not a business person at all, and that was hard in the beginning. It's not like practicing law, where you can open a textbook."

A bit of luck brought Zoern her first investor, Michael Doherty, a neighbor in her apartment building in downtown Austin. Doherty, a former commodities trader from Brooklyn, who was as impressed as Kissaroslaki by her determination and vision, wrote a check for $100,000 to further develop the car. Later additional investments totaled $450,000.

She has since received $3 million more in financing, in exchange for equity, and is now chief executive of Kenguru. Kissaroslaki, who moved to Austin in September 2011 with his wife and young family, is chief operating officer.

They hired five mechanical and electrical engineers to help design the vehicle and adapt it from metric to U.S. dimensions.

"There isn't anything terribly unique in the manufacturing, but the vehicle itself certainly is," says Jeff Gray, chief executive of VectorWorks Marine in Titusville, Fla., the contract manufacturer building the Kenguru.

Production is to start on July 15, Kissaroslaki says, with vehicles available for sale by the end of the summer. He says three dealers have been established in the United States, all of them in Florida, as well as one each in Britain, France, Germany and Spain.

The urge to build an affordable, accessible vehicle for wheelchair users is deeply personal for Zoern, but the company's business model addresses a real need — the social and professional isolation of people who use wheelchairs. They "are stuck at home way more than they should be," Zoern says. "They're missing out on fun. I know very, very few who drive themselves.

"If I wanted to run four errands on a Saturday, and needed to hoist myself in and out of a car every time, it takes a tremendous toll on my shoulders. I have a limited lifetime of lift."

With some 3.3 million Americans using wheelchairs, Zoern is confident that she will find buyers for the Kenguru. Like her, many of them now rely on the good will of friends or family for rides, or take public transportation.

"This is a niche market," she says. "It's not going to be the next GM." But she says she receives emails from interested potential customers from around the world.

"We don't have huge aspirations," Zoern says, "but we want to make the Kenguru available to all those who want or need it."

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