$150 million later, iBots roll

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

WARREN, N.J. - Since the first iBot hit the streets of Riverside, Calif., in January, Johnson & Johnson has rolled out its stair-climbing, $29,000 power wheelchair in Houston, Chicago, St. Louis, New Jersey and Denver. Next up: Washington, D.C. and Miami.

J&J declined to reveal how many iBots have been sold since the roll-out or to comment on reimbursement by third-party payers. A spokesman wrote in an e-mail that “sales are right in line with projections and everyone is pleased with sales progress.”

Skeptics, meanwhile, say the chair is dead-on-arrival and has little chance to succeed as a financial proposition for J&J, which spent more than $150 million to develop the wheelchair. One manufacturer claimed that J&J had sold just 13 chairs in its first three months.

Industry observers are also noting how little booth space Independence Technologies, the J&J subsidiary responsible for the iBot, has taken at various Abilities Expos this year. A spokeswoman for the Abilities Expo confirmed that J&J had reserved less space on the show floor compared to last year but was using more space on an obstacle course off-site.

Independence Technologies exhibited at Medtrade Spring this year, a first for the company that had planned to bypass the traditional rehab supplier network and go direct to end-users (see HME News, May 2004).

Vickie Hicks, a designer in her early fifties from Oklahoma City, took out a bank loan to pay for the iBot she’s been using since February. Her primary carrier, Medicare, won’t pay for the chair. So far, she said, the power chair has fulfilled her expectations.

“I’m convinced that it will make my life simpler on an ongoing basis,” said Hicks.

In addition to the $29,000 for the chair, Hicks also paid for travel expenses to train on the device in Houston.

Another iBot user contacted by HME News declined to talk about the iBot until he’d spent more time in the chair.

Hicks had been using a Quickie manual chair and still uses a three-wheeled Amigo scooter to get around inside the house. The manual chair was very hard on her back and shoulders, she said. She believes the iBot will spare her a shoulder surgery that would otherwise be inevitable.

“How do you put a value on that?” she asked.

The iBot was her first power chair and became an “obsession” after she saw a news story about the iBot on television.

Although the stair-climbing feature is the most eye-catching feature of the chair, Hicks values her newfound ability to be elevated to an eye-to-eye position in her chair.

“Now I can reach into my grandchild’s bed,” she said. “My range has just increased.”