Engineer designs first smart cushion with sensors for better wheelchair user experience
Wheeling & Dealing
Looking to help people, an engineer designs a better wheelchair experience.
Tim Balz, 27
Founder/CEO, Kalogon, Melbourne
The Tech: Smart cushion for wheelchair users
Tim Balz initially wasn’t a good student in high school. He was told he wouldn’t go to college. But he had one teacher who believed in him. That teacher introduced Balz to engineering through robotics, and Balz captained the team in his Plainville, Ind., high school. “Engineers have so much power to change so many lives. I knew then it was the best career I could think of to change the world,” he says.
He got interested in refurbishing electric wheelchairs in high school after observing a student in a manual wheelchair collecting recyclables from the classrooms and struggling as the load got heavier to pull. When he heard the boy’s insurance wouldn’t cover an electric chair, Balz sold his moped and purchased a used wheelchair. “Then I wanted to trick it out for him,” with his name, a sound system, leg rests, even a hitch for his recycling. Requests for chairs poured in, as did donations. At 15, Balz started a non-profit to refurbish and donate electric wheelchairs. “My parents always raised me to look for ways to help people.”
After three tries, Balz was accepted to Rose- Hulman Institute of Technology, well known for engineering and for project-based learning. As the student lead, he designed an all-terrain wheelchair for a company associated with the university. The wheelchair is in use today, and his name is on the patent.
“But then things got really interesting,” he says. He gave a talk at a robotics conference, and afterward Intel offered him an opportunity to design his own summer internship. Balz taught himself how to write a business plan with the goal of designing one of the world’s first “smart” wheelchairs. Intel provided him with a team of engineering Ph.D.s and interns to help bring the plan to reality, and his prototype won the Intel 2014 Internet of Things Device of the Year and an endorsement from physicist Stephen Hawking, whose message was: “Technology for the disabled is often a proving ground for technology of the future.”
Seeking to diversify his skills and explore career options, Balz interned at an industrial engineering company in Detroit — “too easy” — then at Elon Musk’s SpaceX. After returning to school for his final year and completing his senior project, he accepted an engineering job at SpaceX in Cape Canaveral. “I love working where the chaos is and where people have no idea what they’re doing because it’s all brand new.”
The SpaceX years
Working at SpaceX for 3½ years through November 2020 was “like drinking out of a firehose. The learning was insane,” he says. He initially was part of a team focused on refurbishing Falcon 9 rockets, which had never been done before at SpaceX. He later worked on the Dragon and the heat shields on Starship.
At SpaceX, Balz witnessed the “insane power” of like-minded, committed people working together on one mission. He also learned to build hardware the Tesla way — making constant iterations along the way based on ongoing testing and user feedback.
Yet his entrepreneurial drive began kicking in. He thought, SpaceX can hire all the world-class engineering talent it wants, but there are so many problems in the world that go unsolved because they "are not sexy." He was drawn again to the assistive technologies, where he had seen little innovation.
Unsure what problem to tackle, Balz, while maintaining his job at SpaceX, assembled a team to help him find out. Over the years, he had kept a list of talented — and empathetic — engineers he might want to work with again. He persuaded five of his top choices, including two from SpaceX, to join him on his next adventure.
Balz bought a house large enough for him, his wife and his team to live and work in. He convinced his partners to move to Brevard County, get full-time jobs at Northrup, NASA and other top companies and to work on the new startup, Kalogon, during nights and weekends. The Balzes turned half of their house into a workshop. After numerous interviews with people who use wheelchairs, the team settled on the problem they wanted to solve: Pressure sores kill 60,000 people every year, according to the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, but the standard of care hasn’t changed in nearly half a century.
Balz and his team designed a prototype of a smart cushion, which senses pressure points and automatically redistributes support to those areas. A mobile app also allows users to adjust the cushion's support themselves. They received positive feedback from veterans’ agencies and assisted living centers. Balz then decided to leave SpaceX to go allin. After more than a year of self-funding, Kalogon attracted financial support from an unidentified investor and Seedfunders Orlando and began sales. One by one, the other engineers quit their lucrative day jobs, too. Balz’s co-founders are Aaron Jones, Connor Crenshaw, Christian Balcom and Evan Rosenberg.
Kalogon’s smart cushion is used by rehabilitation centers, assisted-living centers and VA hospitals around the country. It sells for about $2,000 and can be customized.
Despite its engineering success, the team still didn’t know much about running a business. So Balz sold the house, and the team now works out of Groundswell, a co-working and startup incubator on the Space Coast. The Kalogon team occupies “the Magic Corner” — so named because previous occupants have won investments on the television show Shark Tank and they are learning more about fundraising, marketing, manufacturing and sales.
Kalogon’s cushions are manufactured at the Brevard Achievement Center, which provides employment help and job training for people with disabilities. Balz has a team of 10 and is raising more venture capital.
The company recently won $30,000 in Florida Venture Forums's Emerging Tech Showcase. Balz says the startup is focusing on sales, working on closing some large partnerships and seeking Medicare approval for the product. He also still runs his non-profit, Freedom Chairs, which has given away more than 150 wheelchairs.
The Kalogon team will likely venture beyond the disabilities market — think long-distance truck drivers and office workers, for example. But for now, Balz says Kalogon’s focus is on wheelchair users because there is so much need.