Cars are getting safer: there are backup cameras, lane departure warnings, and sensors that apply the brakes when the sense an obstruction. But for all the technology being poured into cars, power wheelchair users lacked the same protection—relying on just a seatbelt in many cases. 

That didn’t sound right to Barry Dean, who was introduced to wheelchairs when his daughter, Katherine, who was born 16 weeks early, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Dean’s name might be familiar—he’s a Grammy-nominated songwriter based in Nashville. And now he’s also CEO of LUCI, a company that has created a smart device that adds extra safety to a power wheelchair. 

DEAN: Luci is software and hardware platform for Group 3 power chairs. The hardware goes on the existing chair. And then the software uses sensors to help it see the environment to keep the user from smashing into walls and dropping off curbs and hopefully prevent injuries to the user and damage to the chair and facilities and others.

We were surprised how common injuries and tips and falls in power chairs were. And so once we realized that this is an actual need—it's not just our families, everyone's been dealing with this—we really decided to move and try to do something

HOMECARE: What was the inspiration for LUCI, both the product and the name?
DEAN: You know, the truth is these medical Group 3 power chairs are expensive. The MSRP on my daughter's chair is $80,000, the same as a Tesla. And the only thing for safety is a seatbelt. And if you want a phone charger, that's a $400 private pay option. It's one of the most expensive investments that we made for her. And it's really the least connected. 

So, we felt like now is the time to create a real—and I think it will be seen as the first—operating system [for power wheelchairs]. All of a sudden you can add so much more to it. … We see it as a technology inclusion issue. How come my daughter and her friends are at the back of that inclusion in technology? That innovation should be up to the front and it helps everybody, if we do it, but someone has to go first.

[The name] LUCI comes from the name of Katherine’s favorite song by the Beatles, “Lucy in the Sky.” And at one point we code named the cloud development team as LUCI, and somebody said, “Hey, we should just make the name of the company LUCI.” So that's how this came about.

3. You call LUCI “smart” wheelchair technology. What makes it’s smart?
What makes it smart is it's connected to the real world. It provides technology inclusivity to all manner of devices and information. Also, it does collision avoidance, drop-off protection and tip alerts—tech that doesn't exist right now. And I think what makes it smart also is that it's a platform to increase innovation. 

What happens when all of these technologies and health and wellness things begin to coalesce and be used by researchers to come up with optimal ways to avoid injury or the best routes when you're driving or even avoid down the road issues. And that's what makes this smart in our mind.

4. What is your background in mobility? 
DEAN: I’m a Nashville songwriter. But I'm a dad really. My daughter was born 16 weeks early, she weighed 1 pound, 10 ounces. We purchased her first chair when she was very young, four or five. And it was a scary thing. There's this big chair with this tiny little girl. And the speed hadn't been set properly. So, she took off down the hall and the assistive technology professional jumped and grabbed the little rail in the back—and bang—it went right into the wall. She was fine, but it was really scary for a dad. I parked that chair in the garage for at least a year. 

Now, Jered's [Dean, Barry’s brother] in Denver and he spent his whole career as a systems engineer and a product designer working on all manner of products from dialysis machines, to aerospace. … It would be a very short story without Jered Dean. When we started looking for the solutions I called Jered because of his incredible background in engineering and [even together] we couldn't find it. 

5. You recently announced partnerships with Numotion, Permobil and NSM. How do you see LUCI’s role growing in the industry?
DEAN: That's a good question. Well, as I mentioned, we're outsiders to the industry. So, you know, as a father, my hope is a couple of things will occur. The first is I hope that other companies will see the response we're getting from users and caregivers and say, “Hey, we want to bring out innovation.” I think they develop a lot, but I'm not sure it gets out. And so hopefully this will encourage that. Second, I want the users to be able to have a voice in this. I've been privileged to get to listen to United Spinal as a technology access group. I was allowed to visit and listen to their dialogue. And I heard these users saying, why can't it do this, when can it do that [in reference to their power wheelchair]? Why isn't [this feature] available? And so hopefully this will be encouraging to users, that their voice is being heard and they need to continue to insist that the industry listen to it.

I think we're in a very different place. We don't make wheelchairs. And we're not a supplier. We are a very different kind of company, but I can say we're excited to be talking to all the manufacturers now, and we're thrilled with their excitement. Our hope is to be able to work with all of them and in the best possible way. So that's what we're working on right now.

Read more about LUCI in the upcoming March issue of HomeCare, available soon.