Written by Andrew Seale

Dr. Pooja Viswanathan had heard about smart wheelchairs but it was while visiting elderly residents in long-term care that she really grasped how manual wheelchairs were impacting their quality of life.

“(They were) in these manual wheelchairs because they’re not allowed to use power wheelchairs,” says Viswanathan pointing to concerns around operating safely. “I realized it was a human rights issue not being given the opportunity for independent mobility.”

So Viswanathan decided to take the technology further, moving from Toronto to B.C. to get her doctorate at UBC and develop a system for detecting obstacles and providing feedback to wheelchair operators and others in their vicinity.

She assumed the research would eventually be picked up by a big healthcare company or wheelchair developer. But around 2015, a few years after developing the tech, completing her PhD and moving back to Toronto, she participated in a workshop on why smart technology was so slow to filter into the market. Speaking with others, she realized her technology would be better suited for a nimble startup capable of responding quicker to consumer demands.

She started training, taking any startup workshop at MaRS or in Toronto (“Which is a heck of a lot of them,” says the entrepreneur).

“This was really my first exposure to the world of startups,” says Viswanathan. It was eye-opening meeting other founders and hearing their stories and realizing a lot of them didn’t have a business background either. “You need to be willing to learn, willing to fill in those gaps and find other people who know how to fill the gaps.”

She started building a team and group of advisors, incorporating Braze Mobility in January 2016.

“I decided Toronto was the place,” says Viswanathan. “I felt that in order for a health tech company to really be successful it needed to be close to the university, to healthcare, to commercialization, it really needed all those ingredients and I think Toronto really does have a unique advantage.”

Braze Mobility is currently based out of the Impact Centre at the University of Toronto, in the heart of the ecosystem. Viswanathan points out that she’s steps away from other founders like Neda Ghazi, co-founder of wearable startup Comfable, who Viswanathan met during the Fierce Founders Bootcamp at Communitech last summer.

“Neda and I work a few offices from each other at the Impact Centre but we didn’t actually get to know each other until we went to Fierce Founders,” she says. “We came back a lot closer.”

It’s opened up another doorway for the Braze founder, a fellow founder who understands the challenges of running a startup even if they’re in different spheres.

“We realized we were facing a lot of the same challenges when it came to manufacturing and distribution,” says Viswanathan. “Since then we’ve had a much stronger connection, a willingness to share information – having that network is great.”

Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)