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Project gets lift from contest

An award-winning business plan put together by a team of Washington State University students got its start in a coloring book.

In crayon.

Now the students are hoping to attract investors, form a corporation and place their proposed product – a mechanized device that allows people in manual wheelchairs to adjust their height – on the market. It’s a class project that Nick Rapagnani hopes won’t end when he graduates in the spring.

“Our primary goal is to bring this to the commercial marketplace,” said Rapagnani, a senior business student. “Until there’s some reason to abandon that, that’s our focus.”

Rapagnani and two other students, bioengineering seniors Ahmad Bayomy and Sepideh Zolfaghari, are presenting their business plan for the wheelchair device at a nationwide conference this weekend, where potential investors will be among the judges.

The students’ plan won the WSU-wide competition in business plans, and then was selected as a finalist for the national competition from applicants across the country.

They developed the plan, from market research to engineering, as part of a yearlong capstone class in entrepreneurship and bioengineering.

Bayomy said he was inspired by his younger brother, Yousef, who uses a wheelchair because he has a disease that makes his bones extremely brittle.

He sketched out the idea once while waiting for his brother in physical therapy – and then forgot about it for a few years until he and his teammates began working with St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute for the class on entrepreneurship.

People in some motorized wheelchairs already have such devices, but those using manual chairs don’t. The students estimate that 50,000 people in Washington, Oregon and Idaho use manual chairs.

The ability to change heights could help people in wheelchairs in several ways, from expanding their reach to bringing them up to the level of conversations, Bayomy said.

“It’s a combination of physiological benefits, in terms of reducing neck stress and accessibility, but also quality of life,” Bayomy said.

The students hope to attract seed money to build a prototype chair and are finalizing the details of the mechanized seat.

This is the first year that WSU’s College of Business has presented the yearlong course in entrepreneurship, and it focuses on something that’s important to administrators in the college – the connection of classroom learning with the marketplace.

“It needs to make it to the market in order to impact somebody’s life,” said Malia Jacobson, marketing and communications director for the college.

In this year’s class, teams of students have developed plans to create and sell a tool for teaching science and a way to capture gas in septic systems and use it for energy, said Marie Mayes, director of WSU’s Innovation Assessment Center and one of the instructors.

Another team of students is in Malawi working on a plan to market treadle pumps – relatively inexpensive, non-motorized pumps that can have huge benefits in drought-plagued regions.

“It’s definitely real,” Mayes said. “They’re solving real business problems.”

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