© Philipp Reinhardt

Giving back mobility

For a good idea, Siegfried and Peter Herrmann once took apart their beloved golf trolley to tinker with its parts. The result was a walker with elec­tric drive. Their inven­tion gives new mobility to reha­bil­i­ta­tion patients and seniors.

“Baden-Würt­tem­berg. Where ideas work.” That’s what it says on the cup with state emblem that Peter Herrmann is sipping coffee from. He’s sitting in his office. Next to the desk with the flag of Baden-Würt­tem­berg is a crib for the days when his offspring comes along to work. One notices quickly that this is a Swabian family busi­ness starting up. “We’re actu­ally a classic systems service provider for large medical tech­nology compa­nies,” says Bemotec’s junior boss with a Swabian accent. His father, Siegfried Herrmann, started the company in his garage and built it up to the 60 employees it has today. So far, so typical — the kind of story many mid-sized compa­nies could tell. But Peter Hermann still has a special story to tell. He has founded a start-up to market a product he devel­oped: a walker with elec­tric drive, the “beac­tive +e.”

Passion for tinkering

The story actu­ally begins on the golf course. “My father is an avid golfer, and he has a trolley with an elec­tric motor,” says Peter Herrmann. “On the way home from golfing, it occurred to him that such a drive ought to be possible on a walker. He’d already been inter­ested in mobility for seniors for a while.” Siegfried Herrmann’s tinkering instincts were awak­ened. At home, his beloved trolley had to make the ulti­mate sacri­fice as a result. “We took it apart, got a typical walker at a local medical supply store, removed its wheels and attached the trolley’s control unit,” recalls his son and has to laugh. It quickly became clear that the idea was good, but imple­menting it wasn’t so easy. The tubular struc­ture of a stan­dard walker was too flimsy, and oper­ating it would be too compli­cated for elderly people.

Clever details

A chance encounter rescued the project. At an inno­va­tion event held by the local chamber of commerce, Peter Herrmann came across Tricon Design AG, a company special­izing in trans­porta­tion design. It has designed subways in Hamburg and Shanghai. “It was clear to me right away that we needed to talk to them.” That was when the e-walker really started to roll. Working with the experts, Bemotec devel­oped a design study with special focus on the walker’s drive, ergonomics and oper­ating aspects.

“It occurred to me that a drive like the one on my golf trolley ought to be possible on a walker, too.”

Siegfried Herrmann, Bemotec

That was mostly uncharted waters for the team. “For most of our customer orders, we don’t get involved until later and don’t have to worry about funda­mental issues,” says Peter Herrmann. Three wheels or four ? How can we make the walker stable ? How should the perfect hand grip look ? The devel­opers looked for answers to these ques­tions. The result: four wheels, a sturdy frame made of rectan­gular tubing, and an ergonomic grip. The “beac­tive +e” costs between 3,000 and 3,500 euros and weighs 20 kilo­grams — and it looks pretty futur­istic when it rolls quietly humming into a room. “But it’s not supposed to make a high-tech impres­sion; that’s some­thing that puts off elderly people quickly,” notes the junior boss. And that’s why the tech­nology is all under the hood.

Solid support for therapy

“Baden-Würt­tem­berg. Where ideas work.” That’s what it says on the cup with state emblem that Peter Herrmann is sipping coffee from.

The frame’s stur­di­ness is partic­u­larly impor­tant to Herrmann’s biggest customer segment. “We currently do 80 percent of our busi­ness in therapy,” he says. “Strokes, multiple scle­rosis or Parkinson’s patients often suffer from impaired balance and have an unsteady gait. A light­weight walker is exactly the wrong thing for them.”

For the drive, the Bemotec team decided on an EC motor with angular gear from ebm-papst ZEITLAUF, which the special­ists adapted to Bemotec’s special require­ments. For Bemotec, smooth move­ment was espe­cially impor­tant. “The users also have to be able to move the walker without motor support. That’s no problem with the adapted angular gear. You can just hear it turning, but you can’t feel it,” says Peter Herrmann. “Energy effi­ciency was also impor­tant because of the range.”

The battery has a life­time of up to ten hours, so the walker can reli­ably get through a full day of therapy without recharging. Thanks to the motor’s compact design, it was also easy to inte­grate it into the walker’s frame without limiting the user’s freedom of move­ment. Herrmann and his devel­opers selected the indi­vidual compo­nents from ebm-papst’s modular system, a simple and conve­nient solu­tion.

Adjusts auto­mat­i­cally

Users can select from three different speeds depending on their condi­tion and the terrain, and ther­a­pists can program indi­vid­u­al­ized exer­cise routines. Once programmed, they can be stored on an inte­grated RFID chip. With a card, the walker then adjusts contact­lessly to each patient. Espe­cially for patients with one-sided paral­ysis, that offers completely new oppor­tu­ni­ties, as Herrmann explains: “With a normal walker, they’d go in circles. But we can indi­vid­u­ally adjust the speed at which each wheel is driven.”

The features of the “Beac­tive +E” by Bemotec

During the ergonomic and tech­nical design, the inven­tors had to consider the require­ments for TÜV certi­fi­ca­tion. “Every change directly affects the product approval,” says Herrmann. And he took that seri­ously. “For a class 1 medical product, you can actu­ally issue the approval your­self. But we’re Swabians and want to be able to keep sleeping at night, so we agreed that things should be done right and we coop­er­ated with TÜV Süd from the begin­ning.”

Some­times that was diffi­cult with a product that hadn’t existed before. There are stan­dards for elec­tric wheel­chairs and for normal walkers. But the walker from Bemotec is somehow both. “We were done with the actual devel­op­ment in two years, but the approvals cost us another year.”

Some­thing ventured, some­thing gained

Bemotec’s chief couldn’t always play it safe. “For design protec­tion reasons, we always showed our proto­types at trade fairs at a very early stage. We knew that if we didn’t go to market now, some­body else would. And we wanted to be first,” he says. The Rehacare trade fair in Düssel­dorf in 2013 was to decide whether Bemotec would pursue the walker project or not. “The guests overran us. It was crazy,” says Peter Herrmann, who is still impressed even today. “There was no ques­tion anymore of whether we’d continue or not. Some­times you have to accept such busi­ness risks. It worked out for us.”

But as he admits, the starting situ­a­tion was some­what more comfort­able than for other start-ups that have no corpo­rate finan­cial backing. “They have to work really hard to scratch the money together. We’re proud that we were able to manage this devel­op­ment work costing millions on our own,” he says. “We didn’t get any research and devel­op­ment grants. For us it was clear from the begin­ning that if we develop anything, we’ll do it ourselves.”

“We were done with the actual devel­op­ment in two years, but the approvals cost us another year.”

Peter Herrmann, Bemotec

So why did he found a start-up at all ? “It was impor­tant to us to keep the speed up. We had a small group inside the company that worked on the product completely inde­pen­dently of day-to-day busi­ness. We would have been slower if we hadn’t done that.” In addi­tion to the “beac­tive +e,” the “belifted” sofa lifter — another product devel­oped by the inven­tors from Reut­lingen — also found a home under the “bemo­bile” start-up brand. With the modern brand concept, Peter Herrmann wants to distance himself from the old-fash­ioned image of the walker. Its tech­nical features under­score that ambi­tion. For today’s modern seniors, the “beac­tive +e” is equipped with a USB charging port where they can charge their smart­phones.

Moving on its own soon

Thanks to the motor’s compact design, it was also easy to inte­grate it into the walker’s frame without limiting the user’s freedom of move­ment. (Photo: Philipp Rein­hard)

Bemotec is working with univer­si­ties and research insti­tutes on further inno­va­tions. “Now the walker can detect stairs, stop, emit acoustic signals and turn around. Completely on its own!” says Herrmann proudly. “It can also see whether a traffic light is red or green.” The appli­ca­tion isn’t ready for produc­tion yet, but the devel­opers are working with the Univer­sity of Tübingen to change that soon. He is partic­u­larly impressed by the way the scien­tists work on the product. “They’re not using sensors costing millions, they’re constantly looking for even more econom­ical solu­tions that we can use in mass produc­tion later.”

Tinkering in isola­tion is a thing of the past; Peter Herrmann is convinced that networking is the future, and he is relying on a local exchange of exper­tise, for example with Bosch eBike Systems, which is setting up a complete e-bike city in a neigh­boring indus­trial park. “You have to open up, and of course you always reveal a bit of exper­tise by doing that, but it’s the only way to get such a project on its feet for the long haul.”

He’s also taking a new approach with an app through which the walker can be steered and programmed. “In the end customer sector, digi­tal­iza­tion is playing an even bigger role than in machinery,” he says, adding with a laugh, “My father always says it will get strange if we ever have more program­mers than engi­neers sitting here.” He has now bought himself a new golf trolley — with elec­tric drive, of course.

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