The mission of Japanese startup WHILL is to change the negative perception of personal mobility devices through design and technology.
Satoshi Sugie, Co-founder and CEO of WHILL, said he saw two problems to solve: the negative image attached to wheelchairs and the fact that existing wheelchair design cannot account for differing pavement surfaces, making cracks and bumps difficult to navigate. “What we’re trying to do is change the image of the personal mobility device,” Sugie said.
The result is the intelligent electric vehicle (EV)—WHILL offers two products (Model A and Model Ci) to support users with both indoor and outdoor mobility.
Headquartered in Yokohama, Japan, WHILL has offices in the United States employing over 30 people, as well as offices in Taiwan, Canada, and the European Union. The products are designed in Japan and manufactured in Taiwan, which Sugie noted was a preferred location for several reasons: lower costs, cultural similarities to Japan, and the presence of a business cluster housing similar manufacturing activities.
Sugie said WHILL began its global journey by selling into the United States because of the large size of the potential market, but he added that, if he could do it all over again, he might have started elsewhere.
“I don’t think starting in the United States was a good choice,” he said, “because regulation is too strict and it has a very complicated insurance system,” Sugie said that acquiring FDA approval took nearly two years, which is a large opportunity cost for a small company. “Others in the industry said I should avoid the U.S. market,” he noted.
A digital trade initiative in the Indo-Pacific could help small businesses from the U.S. and those wishing to do business in the U.S more easily access the opportunities of the global marketplace.
By committing to high-standard digital trade rules and mainstreaming digital technologies in trade facilitation, businesses of all sizes could more effectively do business.
Sugie noted that he would like to see the Japanese government play a more active role in helping startups like his succeed globally, especially with accessing funding.