Company develops a smart wheelchair system which users control with head gestures giving those with severe muscle diseases more mobility and independence

It’s hard to miss Saskia Melches whizzing around the streets of Ostfildern, Germany, on her electric wheelchair, with her bright pink hair and stylish Google Glass smartglasses.

Saskia has GNE-myopathy, a rare progressive muscle disease. For 11 years, she used a joystick to drive her wheelchair. But this became more difficult as her arms and hands grew weaker, especially during colder months.

Unwilling to lose her independence, she looked for a different solution. Her timing and location were spot on.  In Munich, a startup called Munevo had developed a smart wheelchair control system, munevo DRIVE, which hit the market in 2019.

Its inventor, Claudiu Leverenz, studied information systems at the Technical University of Munich, and was one of a group of students who applied smart glass-controlled technology to electric wheelchairs for a school project.

After graduation, he carried the project into the real world, launching munevo with three other co-founders, including Konstantin Madaus, a mechanical engineer.

“We’re focusing on people who are not able to use their hands to control the wheelchair, but only their heads,” says Konstantin. “Some even lose that function over time, with a disease such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS.”

Opening the door to freedom

The smart glasses app has a menu that users navigate using subtle turning or nodding gestures; when driving, the wheelchair goes in the direction that the head is tilted. Saskia says that the control is intuitive. Users can also direct the app to change their seating position, which is critical to avoid pressure ulcers from sitting in one position for too long.

Currently, munevo employs Google Glass as hardware, though all the applications are its own. Although Google recently discontinued its headsets, munevo owns enough stock for a couple of years and plans to develop its own smart glasses or wearable device. Optional add-ons allow users to control other devices, such as robot arms or a smart home.

This means that somebody with little to no motor control can operate window blinds, lights, a television, a smartphone, or a computer unassisted—and even open the door and go for a walk alone. And since smart glasses look cool and tech-forward, users avoid the stigma of wearing a more obtrusive solution on their face or chin.

In short, munevo DRIVE can be life changing. “To be able to do things on your own means everything,” says Konstantin. “We have had deliveries where the users were crying, because for them it meant the first time being able to drive through the door themselves for a year or even longer. One user, Ralph, told us he’s driven around 1 000 kilometre in his chair, alone, with our control.”

© @munevo

Konstantin Madaus, the mechanical engineer behind munevo DRIVE

In 2023, munevo was a finalist in the European Investment Bank Institute’s Social Innovation Tournament,  which recognises startups that are making a positive impact socially, ethically, or environmentally.

Konstantin says the acknowledgement is encouraging: “It shows we’re on the right track, that we’re doing something that’s innovative and meaningful in all of Europe.”

Taking munevo around the world

After first launching in Germany, Munevo has rolled out munevo DRIVE in Austria, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and most recently the United States, where the company sees enormous potential for it.

So far, around 300 people have received a munevo DRIVE. Konstantin says there are no concrete statistics to show how many more could benefit from it, but the company’s estimates indicate that in Western Europe alone there are more than 13 000 potential users with ALS, multiple scoliosis, or high spinal cord injuries.

Though the solution is expensive, costing around €8.500 without add-ons, the price should come down as the market for it grows. The company also works hard to educate insurance companies on the benefits to their clients.

Recognising that the input of its target audience is critical to the product’s evolution, munevo learns from user feedback, and has some employees who are wheelchair users.

“We’re developing it for them, so it’s more than just imagining how they feel,” says Konstantin. One of these employees is Saskia, who asked if she could join the company because she loves her munevo DRIVE so much.

“It gives me independence, freedom, and mobility,” she says. For the past year and a half, she has worked in internal sales, dealing with medical supply stores, potential customers, insurance companies, associations, and her fellow munevo DRIVE users.

In the future, munevo is looking to expand its product line beyond the head control, and is considering a joystick, as well as an eye-tracking device for people who cannot move their heads.

In addition to wheelchair users, the startup might look into customising the app for elderly people, with features such as fall detection or medication reminders. In every case, the goal is the same: using technology to empower some of society’s most vulnerable people.