Sunday, March 31, 2002

ST. CLOUD, Minn. - While the stair-climbing, "sit-to-stand" Johnson & Johnson iBot wheelchair rolls through clinical trials, Fena Design's "sit-to-stand," vertically mobile Vertran wheelchair is hitting the streets this month in Minnesota.

Unlike the iBot, the Vertran does not climb stairs, but it does give users something its maker says no other high-end U.S. power chair, including the iBot, can - the ability to move users in a standing position. That, according to Fena founder, Jay Johnson, who is a quadriplegic, is not only physically uplifting but psychologically and physiologically.

"Our bodies are designed to stand and walk, not to sit and roll around all day," said Johnson. "Our biggest competitive advantage are the medical benefits of standing."

He said clinical studies conclusively show that standing increases bone density, increases circulation and improves digestion. The Vertran was built to be operated with users in a standing position; seated rolling is also an option, but a secondary function.

The high-end powered mobility market has not yet risen to the occasion of standing mobility, no matter the obvious clinical benefits.

Although Lebanon, Tenn.-based Permobil markets a 'stand-and-drive' chair in Sweden, for liability reasons, the company has declined to roll it out in the States.

Still, about 15% of the high-end power chairs sold by Permobil in the U.S. feature a static standing option. That figure, according to Permobil President Larry Jackson, has remained stable through the years despite his contention that everyone ought to be in a standing chair.

The problem, argues Jackson and others, is funding.

"A power standing feature is not necessarily something that people ask for," said Michele Longo, president of AAA Medical Sales, a rehab provider in Englewood, Colo., "although if they had that option - if their insurance would pay for it - they would be interested."

To get insurance to come around on standing chairs, which typically sell for $18,000-$22,000, Jackson believes mainstream manufacturers like Invacare, Pride Mobility and Sunrise Medical need to make a push for it, just as they've done for "tilt-and-recline" systems.

"Until everyone comes out and pushes this envelope a little bit, there will never be one," he said.

The Vertran roll-out is modest. Fena planned to deliver six to seven chairs to Orenstein-Vollmer Associates, a Minneapolis-based manufacturer's rep firm this month, in the first phase of a release that will circulate in Minnesota first, and nationally later.

The Vertran obtained FDA 510(k) marketing clearance last October and a $575,000 in equity financing in December to supplement $2 million in financing that started flowing in March 2000. Fena is shopping for an additional $2 million. Otto Bock is a financial partner. Fena said it will take its chair nationally through them.

The company's chairman is Whitney McFarland, a former Everest & Jennings CEO. The Vertran will retail for $18,500. HME