WHILL’s story starts in fall 2009. The engineering group, “Sunny Side Garage” (SSG), was established, led by Junpei Naito, R&D department of in-vehicle camera at Sony, and Muneaki Fukuoka, medical equipment R&D department at Olympus. Naito and Fukuoka were Nagoya University grad school classmates. Together, SSG was a gathering of young people aiming to use technology to solve social problems. The group was then joined by former Nissan automotive designer, Satoshi Sugie, who had set up a design company and was traveling around the world. With the help of Sugie’s design and engineering skills, SSG were developing “Visualized Wind Art” and “light that can see fireflies brightly.”In 2010, the SSG team members met a wheelchair user who significantly moved them, and inspired the creation of WHILL personal electric vehicles.“I gave up on going to a convenience store just two blocks away.”The wheelchair user was very active and social. However, by relying on a wheelchair, he felt people saw him as “a guy who has a disability and needs help.” This prevented him from going outside and taking part in activities he enjoyed.
The options available for electric wheelchairs was very limited. There are many varieties of cars and motorcycles — choosing features and design to reflect your individuality, is a huge part of purchasing a vehicle. However, users were unable to choose a wheelchair that reflected themselves, and therefore unenthusiastic to ride a chair, because they prioritize functionality over individuality and design. As a result, wheelchair design had not evolved much over several decades.Wheelchair users face many physical hurdles such as bumpy roads, curbs, and uneven surfaces, as well as psychological barriers from people who simply see them as “someone riding a wheelchair.” The SSG team wanted to help wheelchair users overcome these hurdles with state-of-the-art design and technology. By thinking along these lines, the founding members decided to build a revolutionary personal electric vehicle (EV).
Similar to eyewear fashion
Initially, glasses were created for people with poor eyesight — focusing purely on functionality — but now eyewear design is extremely sophisticated with numerous styles available. Now, even people with good vision wear glasses to complement their personal style. Good design has the power to change the perception of a product. And that’s the foundation behind WHILL personal EVs.
The first WHILL concept model gained a lot of attention at the Tokyo Motor Show. Its design was unprecedented in the personal mobility category. Encouraged by exhibition success, the trio began to rapidly improve upon the concept model. At this time, they went to see Mr. Shigeyuki Ishii — the OX Engineering founder — requesting to work in collaboration. Mr. Ishii, a former motorcyclist, who used a wheelchair due to an accident, said point blank to them:“Stop screwing around, do you know how cruel it is to make us dream?”
This strong statement resonated with the three founders. By creating only a concept model, and not a consumer product, it was a disservice to wheelchair users who had been longing for such a breakthrough. They either had commit to creating a consumer product, or walk away. At that time, Sugie, Naito, and Fukuoka, weren’t thinking about practical commercial applications. However, due to Mr. Ishii’s comment, they decided to get serious and launch the company. Naito and Fukuoka resigned from their respective companies and joined by Sugie, they pooled their savings for the initial capital, and established WHILL Inc. in May 2012.
Sugie became CEO (Chief Operating Officer), Naito, CDO (Chief Development Officer) and Fukuoka, CTO (Chief Technology Officer). They started the company out of a small apartment in Machida, Japan.
The three founders set their sights not only on Japan, but international markets. They felt that Japan’s market was extremely small and difficult to sustain commercialization. The founders shifted the majority of their focus on the US market, which was 10x bigger than their home market. Deciding to move ahead with targeting the US market, they chose to start WHILL where their customers were located, in the United States.In April 2013, the WHILL team set up shop in one of the world’s largest startup hubs, Silicon Valley. The trio had high hopes for investment in Silicon Valley, where numerous startups had taken off.
Starting up in a new country, where the team didn’t have a network, they struggled to raise capital funding. Despite their struggles, the founders forged on, staying at acquaintances’ apartments, eating popcorn for dinner, using a coworking space for startups, and drastically cutting down their living expenses. They continued visiting venture capitalists. Yet, they still couldn’t find an investor who was willing to finance the company, and creating new, improved prototypes was draining their existing capital.
After tireless efforts for funding, a US venture capital firm, the 500 Startups, made an initial investment in WHILL. Soon after, Japan’s Itochu Technology Ventures also decided to invest in WHILL. Between 2013 and 2014, WHILL had successfully raised total funding of $1.75 million USD (approximately 200 million yen) from a combination of US and Japan venture capitals and individual investors. As a result, the team now had the prospect to develop the first consumer product.
With creating a consumer product for the masses, came a big hurdle. None of the founding members had a manufacturing or production background. To make the prototype, they sought out advice from Japan’s small factory engineers. They helped advise on how to manufacture the engineering drawings and consult on the manufacturing technology.The “A” in the WHILL Model A, stands for a beginning and best wishes for starting as a company. The Model A, WHILL’s first commercial model, was released in Japan in 2014 and 2015 in the US. Ten team members assembled the initial production of 50 units at a rental factory in a suburb of Tokyo.
Flooded with preorders, when the initial 50 Model A units went on sale, they sold out immediately. In order to deliver to more customers, WHILL needed to set up for mass production. WHILL developed a manufacturing plant in Taiwan, which has the largest electric wheelchair production factories and many international certified factories for medical device manufacturing. But many companies were reluctant to deal with WHILL due to their relatively low production unit estimates.
After numerous factory visits, a sheet metal manufacturer, Jochu Technology, agreed to work with WHILL. The manufacturer believed in WHILL’s vision, saw the potential for future growth within the healthcare industry, and the president’s daughter was also a wheelchair user. Jochu Technology decided not only to manufacture units, but also invested in WHILL.
The Model A supply manufacturing system gradually came together. Not only was the Model A’s sales performance strong, but its modern, sleek look received the Good Design Award in 2015. Meanwhile, in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the Model M, and WHILL started selling the device as medical equipment in North America.
“I can go outside alone without worrying about curbs and gaps.”
“I feel like found a new vehicle, now I can go outside positively.”
Along with a lot of positive comments, Model A customers gave a lot of feedback, such as “I wish it was lighter,” “I want to be able to stow it in my car easily,” “I want a more affordable model”. In response to customer feedback, the popular priced model, WHILL Model Ci, was conceived.
“C” stands for carry, compact, and comfortable, and it has the sleek design and similar performance of the Model A, but a more accessible price point. The Model Ci easily disassembles into three pieces, which fit in the trunk of most vehicles, and it’s half the weight of the Model A. Additionally, for the first time ever, WHILL developed an app linked to the Model Ci, which allows users to drive the EV remotely, check its battery life and range, lock their device, and more.
With the release of the Model Ci, WHILL received support from numerous companies. When first looking to mass produce the Model A, it was a struggle securing part suppliers as a startup with low manufacturing numbers. However, after the Model A release, large, long-standing multinational corporations sympathized with WHILL’s philosophy, and proposed joint development efforts and parts provision. Nidec Corporation developed motors and Panasonic Corporation collaborated on the Model Ci’s lithium-ion batteries. Also, NSK Corporation provided bearings and also invested in WHILL.
After the announcement of Model Ci, distribution had spread nationwide in the United States. WHILL began to work with unique partners and resellers, differentiating the brand from other mobility device manufacturers.
WHILL’s mission is to “deliver fun and innovation to pedestrian travel by transforming today’s antiquated power wheelchair and scooter experience.” Thus, creating personal mobility devices the Model A, Model M, and Model Ci, available almost anywhere across the globe. But WHILL’s vision stretches beyond individual mobility devices.With the world’s population over the age of 60 drastically growing over the next several decades — expecting to more than double to 2.1 billion people by 2050 — there is an increased need for a service that enables people with reduced mobility to transport themselves independently, with ease. With the combination of a WHILL personal EV and infrastructure in place, more people will be able to take part in activities they love and explore the world around them.For example, a WHILL EV could pick up pedestrians at large public spaces such as airports, hospitals, museums, tourist spots, and more. After users arrive at their destinations, the device will transport back to its original location. Autonomous driving technology is our vision for the not-so-far-away future. Moreover, autonomous EVs have the potential to be an important part of infrastructure to make cities worldwide smarter and more accessible for all. At WHILL, we are currently exploring options to provide mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) solutions for large-scale venues and beyond. We are revolutionizing pedestrian travel, expanding the possibilities of what WHILL personal EVs can do for individuals and society. We believe, with the right technology and infrastructure in place, people with reduced mobility can overcome many obstacles and have fun while commuting.
|WHILL Inc. is established
|The WHILL US head office is established in San Carlos, CA
|Procurement of $1.75 million USD through third-party allotment
|WHILL Model A is announced in Japan
|Acquisition of $11 million USD through third-party allotment
|The Japan head office moved to Tsurumi-ku, Yokohama
|The WHILL Model M (available in N.A. and EU) acquired US FDA clearance
|Acquisition of $17.5 million USD through third-party allotment
|Launched the popular price model WHILL Model C in Japan
|WHILL Model Ci launched in North America
|WHILL Model C launched in Europe
|WHILL raised $45 million USD in funds to accelerate global expansion and to fund MaaS business growth
|WHILL autonomous driving technology is unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada