iBot to hit streets by end of the year

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

WARREN, N.J. - The FDA removed the last hurdle for the iBot, Johnson & Johnson’s four-wheeling, stair-climbing wheelchair, when the agency put its stamp on the $29,000 power wheelchair in early August. J&J expects consumers to start using the iBot by the end of this year.
Following revelation of the FDA news, two leading executives at Independence Technology, the J&J subsidiary that’s rolling out the iBot, announced that they’d be leaving the iBot to other managers.

Jean-Luc Butel, president of Independence Technology, will be leaving J&J for Japan, where he worked previously. Dave Brown, the vice president of sales and marketing, is moving to another J&J division and will be replaced by Rob Boyce, who has been working on the iBot project for four years.

Brown said Butel’s decision was personal, and that his own transition to general manager of the company’s prescription skin care business is a promotion.

The FDA approval concludes a four-year, $150 million odyssey as J&J seeks transformation in the power wheelchair market. Skeptics say the market for the high-end power chair is simply not there.

Although the Medicare beneficiary is not at the center of the iBot’s bullseye, the difference between Medicare outlays for power wheelchairs in the K0011 and K0014 categories is striking. While Medicare spent more than $600 million for K0011s in 2001, allowed charges for the K0014 totaled about $4 million.

The skeptics and the $29,000 price tag don’t faze Independence, at least not ostensibly. Here’s how Dave Brown views the wheelchair market for the iBot:

He said that 70% of two million wheelchair users in America will be able to use iBot. For all wheelchair users, Brown believes the split between manual versus power is about 90-10. In coming years, he said the iBot would accelerate the move from manual to power, so that eventually 20% and 30% of all wheelchair users would own a power chair, even among those who currently believe that moving from manual to power is the kind of surrender they’d prefer not to make.

“When people get in the device, and experience balance and stair, and four-wheel, it really runs the gamut in terms of who is interested,” said Brown. “Then it becomes much more about the psychographic of how I want to live my life, and am I happy with my mobility or do I want to do more.”

While the iBot’s stair-climbing ability gets most of the press, Brown said the chair’s ability to balance users at eye level and its ability to four-wheel over challenging terrain wins greater raves from users.