Can Kamen's Segway scooter breach the HME divide?

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Thursday, January 31, 2002

It went by IT and Ginger, now it's known as the Segway Human Transporter. But more important than its moniker is its application - specifically, whether it has a place in the home medical equipment industry.

The answer, according to HME sources, is wait-and-see. At least one writer sees health- care potential, but to those in the industry, it's basically a toy for the able-bodied. Still, that isn't stopping some providers from considering possible crossover sales for the device.

Commonly described as a hybrid of "an old-fashioned push lawn mower and a Razor scooter," the Segway HT, unveiled by inventor Dean Kamen in December, uses gyroscopes and tilt sensors for balance and rechargeable nickel cadmium batteries for power. The unit has steering based on equilibrium and movement, can reportedly reach a speed of 12.5 miles per hour and is designed to travel up to 17 miles on a single charge.

Kamen, who developed the IBOT stair-climbing wheelchair and other medical devices, is positioning this new product as a "personal mobility" device for the able-bodied - primarily urbanites. Retail price estimates have ranged from $3,000 to $8,000, which gives an initial impression of being a Sharper Image-type luxury toy.

Segway officials say they aren't pursuing the home medical equipment audience - at least not yet.

"It's still in the initial stages, howeverwhat happens in the future has yet to be determined," a Segway spokesman said.

HME manufacturers, while intrigued by the stand-up scooter concept, generally don't see the device as fitting in with their current portfolios.

Bob Smith, v.p. of sales and marketing for Old Forge, Pa.-based Golden Technologies, says the company is studying potential applications of the upright scooter, but that too many questions exist right now.

"For us, any time new technology is developed, there is always a potential fit," he said. "The key is who could use it. It requires someone with good balance to maneuver the unit. Do our customers have the balance necessary to use it? Some might, but most people are on scooters because they are disabled in some way. So it could be some time before this type of product would correlate. But I do applaud the technology."

Manufacturers concur that it isn't likely to supplant conventional scooters, but no one is ruling out the possibility that the HME mobility market could evolve in the direction of a two-wheeled vehicle.

"Even though we're HME, we're becoming more aware of the electric vehicle industry," noted Clarence Rivette, managing director for North America and Canada at movingpeople.net in Toronto. "The electric vehicle trend has been toward smaller, more portable scooters. We can't ignore it. Our business is as much about electric vehicles as it is about medical equipment."

HME viability may indeed depend on whether the prototype can be modified so that senior citizens and the mobility challenged can operate them safely. At this point though, industry representatives aren't convinced they can.

Even if the Segway HT isn't yet adaptable for conventional HME clientele, that doesn't mean it won't end up in HME dealers' showrooms. The buzz surrounding this product has mobility salespeople thinking outside the box about how it could augment their business.

"We don't cater to that (upscale, younger) group enough," said Vince DeStigter, president of Western Health Care in Jackson, Calif. "It would fit right in with the lotions, herbals and massage therapy we're already offering."

DeStigter says renting the units could be lucrative given that most people would want to try them out first before buying one. "Ours is a logical industry to use it," he said. "We are in the mobility business, after all."

Still, no matter what kind of stability or control options may be added to the upright, most will still prefer the sit-down model, contends Tom Arnold, owner of The Scooters Factory/Scooters Plus in Fort Myers, Fla.

"Sitting down is a critical issue," he said. "I can't see that many people in our area preferring to stand up. Overall, I don't see it having a place in the medical business."

Just because Segway isn't aiming the HT scooter at the disabled population doesn't mean they can't use it, Associated Press writer Alexandria Berger contends.

"The Segway could be quite beneficial to the disabled," she wrote, asserting that the company is downplaying the medical application "because (its) ad mavens thought being unable to walk would diminish big sales." HME

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