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Exiled Syrian Engineer Designs Wheelchair Upgrade

Back in 2012, when protests had turned to revolution, engineering lecturer and researcher Tarek Kasmieh began to look for a way out of Syria. He says he wasn’t political and, unlike many other academics, he made a point of not taking sides in the conflict in order to avoid being targeted. But he still remembers mortars falling around the Syrian Virtual University and the Higher Institute for Applied Sciences and Technology in Damascus where he worked.

In his new life outside of Syria, Kasmieh believes he has found a way to put his skills to use, as he is trying to improve the lives of wheelchair users. He works as a researcher at the Laboratory of Industrial and Human Automation Control, Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science at the Université de Valenciennes in northern France. Here he has helped found a start-up company called AutoNomad Mobility to create and market a product that adapts regular wheelchairs into motorized ones. “With no major innovation since its invention over a century ago, the average wheelchair is overdue a redesign,” says Kasmieh.

France was an obvious destination for Kasmieh, as he had completed his doctoral degree in electrical engineering in Toulouse in 1998. He managed to get a grant from the Scholar Rescue Fund and then started working through his contacts at universities in France to find a job.

Although he was anxious to leave Syria, he wasn’t just looking for any old research position. He wanted to find an opportunity that would mean his grant money could sustain him for years to come without constantly having to search for new funds.

This kind of thorough, considered approach is typical of Kasmieh, says his former lecturer and mentor, Majd Alwan, senior vice president of technology at LeadingAge, an association of non-profit organizations in the United States that focuses on applied research and advocacy for the elderly. “Once he puts his mind to something, he isn’t deterred by obstacles,” says Alwan. “He is smart and tenacious.”

Eventually Kasmieh came across a former student, Sami Mohammed, who had a research idea that he wanted to turn into a business opportunity, along with additional funding from the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research.

Kasmieh agreed to collaborate with him and has been back in France since 2013. His Scholar Rescue Fund grant has finished, but his efforts to plan ahead bore fruit. He’s now living off revenue from the company he set up with Mohammed, AutoNomad Mobility, though they need investors soon if the business is to remain solvent.

The company created a kit that converts a standard wheelchair into a motorized one. “There were other similar products on the market, but ours has an added innovation,” explains Kasmieh. “We call it the balancing mode. If you’re trying to imagine it, I guess it’s a bit like a Segway.”

In effect it means the user can tip their chair back to raise the front wheels into the air while continuing to move forward without worrying about falling over. This makes it much simpler and safer for people in wheelchairs to navigate curbs.

Mohammed is proud of the product he and Kasmieh have developed. “It’s a challenge for wheelchair-bound people to do really everyday things like getting about, going to the toilet, overcoming obstacles and rolling over grass,” he says. “More research in this area will help these people live a better life.”

Alwan believes that despite the challenges of dealing with business negotiations, it’s important for researchers to engage in this kind of field. “Big technology companies often neglect the disabled and elderly populations in their research and development process,” he says. “They go for more general consumer markets, but that has left a gap. I firmly believe we can and should be doing a lot more to bring innovations to the disabled and elderly.”
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