Business / Corporate | IDEAS IN ACTION

Despite ups and downs, designer and former teacher Kenji Suzuki is making pedal-powered Cogy wheelchairs a reality

by Cory Baird

Staff Writer

While career success has taken him from elementary school teaching to the head of Tess Co., Kenji Suzuki’s life has not always been easy or straightforward.

During his tenure as a teacher, one of Suzuki’s students suffered from a health condition that left them unable to walk. Although the child was keen to participate in all school activities, their traditional wheelchair often restricted their movement.

One day, after returning home from school, Suzuki saw on TV a prototype pedal-powered wheelchair, which he thought would be the perfect way for his student to expand their mobility.

The device would later become Cogy, a wheelchair first developed by Tohoku University that is now sold by Suzuki’s company.

The technology used in Cogy wheelchairs helps increase mobility, serving as a rehabilitation method for those who suffer from spinal diseases or injury as well as for the elderly who have lost the energy or ability to walk due to pain and patients with partial paralysis caused by a stroke.

But even before launching his business, which now has sold over 6,000 wheelchairs in Japan, Suzuki faced a number of challenges.

“I wasn’t a businessman, a banker or a doctor, so Tohoku University wondered why I wanted to pursue this business so badly when I approached them,” said Suzuki, 44, in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

In the end he would win the rights to use the patent while giving the university a share of what would become his new wheelchair production company in exchange.

Suzuki said that through it all persistence has been key in moving forward through the various challenges that came his way.

“If you remind yourself that it takes time to achieve your goals, it may not be as difficult to get over the hardships along the way,” he said.

The pitch

Cogy’s ambitious selling point is that it can help people recover from accidents or ailments which have left them with little hope of ever walking again.

The design of the wheelchair is based on reflexivity, allowing users with limited mobility to use momentum to propel themselves forward.

Tess Co. exclusively focuses its efforts on its one product, Cogy, which is available in two adult sizes (medium and large), alongside a children’s version of the product that was launched in 2018.

Unlike other wheelchairs, Suzuki said that Cogy is first and foremost about helping people with rehabilitation and mobility rather than providing a degree of comfort.

Suzuki acknowledged that people may be skeptical of the technology because of its ambitious promise to help patients recover from illnesses that often leave people unable to move.

But after years of showcasing the wheelchair’s ability to help people either recover from their illnesses or improve their mobility, he said many individuals and medical professionals have come around to recognizing the merits of the technology.

The hurdles

With Cogy’s new, novel design and concept, Suzuki was surprised to find many doctors not keen at first on this new type of wheelchair.

He said that the initial lack of interest from health professionals was due to the fact that many prefer tried and tested methods rather than flashy new technology.

And the only way forward was to create as many successful test cases as possible to convince skeptics that Cogy was not a gimmick.

“We decided to bring our product directly to people who needed it,” said Suzuki. “After creating many success stories we were finally able to bring our results to medical experts.”

Only in the past couple of years have many of these skeptics started to see the benefits of Cogy, according to Suzuki.

A startup like Cogy manufacturing can also face difficulties because sales are still relatively low.

Produced in Taiwan, it takes around six weeks from placing an order with the factory to shipping it to Japan. That makes it difficult for buyers to receive shipments on a tight schedule. On the other hand, holding unused inventory can be expensive for the factory if sales are volatile, which has often been the case for Cogy.

The market

Suzuki said that when he created the company many investors doubted his claim that there would be a market for his product — which he claims was the first pedal-powered wheelchair on the market.

Other wheelchair producers, however, appear convinced that there is a demand, and have created their own versions of the Cogy in recent years.

“When companies try to sell wheelchairs with a similar design, it means that our product is good and that it is needed,” said Suzuki.

The difficulty ahead is whether the business still has room to grow.

According to the health ministry there were over 1.76 million Japanese adults living with a physical handicap in 2013, of which 627,000 had lower limb disorders. These numbers are expected to grow as the population ages. The same data also showed that over 50,000 children were physically handicapped.

While Cogy cannot be used by all who suffer from physical handicaps, Suzuki is confident that he can tap demand both from those currently using wheelchairs as well as those who had long given up on being mobile.

Cogy costs ¥329,000 for a regular sized wheelchair, but with insurance can be rented for only a few thousand yen a month.

The outlook

In 2016 the company received funding from Daiwa House Industry Co., giving it the resources to move forward with a revamp of its brand and website. The investment was part of Daiwa’s investments in robotic and other health-related technologies.

Until now, Cogy has been marketed directly to health care companies that often buy in bulk. While selling in large volumes can be good for business on a short-term basis, it also poses challenges when sales dry up temporarily.

This is one reason the company has decided to shift its business strategy to also sell directly to consumers, as that can provide a steadier stream of customers. The sales and marketing revamp was paid for through Daiwa’s capital infusion.

But Suzuki said that the implementation of a new business strategy, alongside a rebranding of the product, also led to a drop in sales to around a few hundred wheelchairs this year.

With the launch of a new children’s version of Cogy, and plans to expand abroad next year, Suzuki said he still has no doubts that he can overcome the setbacks and help his company move back toward his goal of selling 10,000 wheelchairs a year.

This section runs exclusive stories on startup founders with unique business models interviewed by The Japan Times.