In her 2006 autobiography, “I Like to Run Too,” Stacy Zoern, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, chronicles her journey with the neuromuscular condition that she’s lived with since early childhood. Though her life may be marked by disability, she writes, “it is also filled with love, ambition and hope.” She should have added determination and doggedness, the two traits that her friends, co-workers and business partners would say have most defined her over the last four years as she pursued her professional dream.
That dream — to build a road-worthy vehicle specifically designed for wheelchair users — is about to come true. Zoern and her Hungarian business partner, Istvan Kissaroslaki, expect their first cars to roll off the assembly line in 12 to 18 months. The new electric vehicle, which looks like the slimmed-down sibling of the city-friendly Smart Car, is dubbed the Kenguru (kangaroo in Hungarian). It’s 7 feet long, 5 feet high and has a pop-up back door through which its owner can roll a wheelchair into the driver’s slot. Two electric batteries afford a 60-mile range between charges, at a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Wrapped in a steel and fiberglass cocoon, the Kenguru promises wheelchair users a new measure of freedom.
“Frankly, I have a muscle disease. I don’t want to be going 70 on the freeway, but I do feel safe going 25 miles an hour on a city street, and that still gives me a huge increase in range of where I can go and be independent,” says Zoern.
Thirteen years ago, Zoern was driving a Dodge Grand Caravan that was customized for disabled drivers. But one day she hit a curb and blew a tire, and lost control of the cumbersome van. Her hands flew off the steering wheel, her wheelchair tumbled, and the vehicle slid into a lamppost. Both she and a friend were injured in the crash, and Zoern realized that replacing the vehicle wouldn’t be wise, for both financial (it cost $80,000) and safety reasons. “The technology wasn’t there yet for me to be driving,” she says.
About a decade later, in March 2010, Zoern was searching the Internet for wheelchair-accessible transport, when she stumbled across the Kenguru. She was ecstatic. Designed by Kissaroslaki, who had been building and field-testing Kenguru prototypes for a couple of years, and taking them to auto shows across Europe, the vehicle was exactly what Zoern had been looking for. She bombarded Kissaroslaki, a Hungarian native educated in the United States, with emails, but her missives went unanswered. At the time, the global recession was hitting Eastern Europe, and Kissaroslaki had just found out he’d lost a 2 million euro loan with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Zoern called Budapest. “He told me, We need a couple of million, it’s going to be four or five years before you can buy one, so have a nice life, and he hung up the phone,” Zoern recalls.
Undeterred, Zoern turned to a partner in her law firm who was an entrepreneur. Zoern was a patent attorney who occasionally took on civil rights disability cases — but she had zero business experience. “I found this product,” she told her co-worker, “and I really want it, and I found out they need money to get it to market. Can you help me?” He agreed, so Zoern embarked on a fundraising effort while at the same time wooing Kissaroslaki and trying to convince him that a partnership was doable. Kissaroslaki came to the U.S. and met with Zoern. He’d been fielding some interest from investors in Europe, but Zoern’s enthusiasm won him over, and in late 2011 he moved his wife and two children to Texas.
“When you grow up with a disability, everything [you] do is an obstacle. I have help to get out of bed in the morning. I have help to get dressed. I have to schedule every bathroom break around when someone is going to be able to come that is strong enough to lift me. Turning on my desk lamp is difficult, filling my printer with paper is difficult, and so you live your whole life that way,” Zoern says.
“Well, starting a business is not for the faint of heart. It’s extremely stressful. It’s a huge risk, and you often have to put everything on the line. It’s very daunting, but like I said, my life has kind of prepared me for this, because this is a normal day in my life,” she says.
Raising money for the Kenguru startup hasn’t been easy. It has taken four years to build a network of relationships and to persuade backers, who include friends and neighbors (Zoern also invested $140,000 herself). She says she was surprised at how little financing was available at the federal level; she had fully expected government support for what is a green project targeted to the disabled. When she met President Barack Obama at an Austin event for small-business entrepreneurs, she says he was impressed and told her that he looked forward to seeing the cars on the road. “I tried to get President Obama’s phone number when I met him, but it just didn’t work out,” Zoern says with a laugh.
Despite the lack of funding from the federal government, any large foundations or the auto industry, Zoern and Kissaroslaki have still managed to raise $4 million, thanks in large part to the fertile Austin startup culture. In early January they announced that they would begin taking reservations for the first Kengurus. The cars will cost about $25,000, but many buyers may qualify for government green energy and mobility tax incentives.
The first model will have motorcycle-handlebar-style steering, and will be suitable for drivers who have sufficient upper-body strength to control the car. Another model is in the works that will employ a joystick, enabling many other wheelchair users to operate the Kenguru. Zoern will need the joystick model because she has limited upper-body strength, so she will have to wait a little longer than most for her car. “I won’t have the first vehicle, or even one of the first 100,” she says.
One of the most rewarding parts of the venture so far, Zoern says, is the emails and calls she gets from potential customers. Zoern understands better than anyone how onerous it can be for the more than 3 million American wheelchair users to run simple errands or get around town. More often than not, they must rely on the kindness of friends and family to escort them to the store, the office or to the coffee shop. In January, Zoern heard from a woman with multiple sclerosis who depended on her husband, Bill, to take her everywhere. When he was diagnosed with dementia and no longer able to drive, she joked to Zoern: “You need to get me a Kenguru ’cos I’m gonna kill Bill!” Potential customers from as far away as Australia and the Middle East have contacted the company, anxiously awaiting its production schedule.
It’s been a long journey, but Zoern is excited about what lies ahead: “I am confident,” she says. “Failure is not an option. We’ve got 30 investors. We’ve raised $4 million in the U.S. Everything in every way is on the line for us personally as founders of this company. And then I’ve got thousands of people out there waiting, so we don’t give up.”