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Startups

Japanese designer to bring high-tech wheelchairs to China

Whill hopes to turn heads of elderly with smart, stylish personal mobility

Whill CEO Satoshi Sugie, a former Nissan Motor designer, will woo Chinese wheelchair users with his sleek, high-tech products.

YOKOHAMA -- Japanese high-tech wheelchair maker Whill will enter the Chinese market this fiscal year, hoping to capitalize on a rapidly growing number elderly people in the world's second-largest economy.

Although Whill's wheelchairs carry a hefty price tag of around 450,000 yen ($4,200) each, the company believes its stylish, smarphone-connected wheel, which can navigate surfaces that would leave conventional wheelchairs stuck, will find many takers in China.

The Yokohama-based manufacturer already sells in the U.S. and Europe.

The opportunity to expand into China came by chance during a visit to Beijing last autumn, said Tian Ye, Whill's head of marketing for the Asia-Pacific region, recalling his encounter with a Chinese medical expert who had used a Whill wheelchair. Impressed with the product's potential, the expert offered to introduce a sales agent in China.

Whill's chairs are known for their looks as well as their functionality. The company, founded in 2012 by CEO Satoshi Sugie, a former Nissan Motor designer, and several others, places a premium on attractive designs. The idea is to change the notion that wheelchairs are for vulnerable people. The basic Model C, for example, has a linear Z-shaped shape when seen from the side, and a two-tone black and various color scheme.

Sugie, left, takes part in a startup event, TechCrunch Shenzhen 2019, in China: Whill hopes to capture a slice of the growing wheelchair market in China, whose population is aging rapidly.

Whill also incorporates cutting-edge technologies into its products. It has developed an "omniwheel" composed of many tiny tires. This allows the front wheels to move in any direction to compensate for small surface changes and to turn 360 degrees with a flick of a joystick-type maneuvering lever.

In China, electric wheelchairs usually go for around 3,000 yuan to 4,000 yuan ($430 to $570). Although Whill has yet to work out exactly how to market its premium products, selling in Japan for 30,000 to 650,000 yuan -- it is considering advertising on TV and the internet, focusing its marketing on wealthy people. It plans to offer its chairs online and through sales agents.

The market for electric wheelchairs is growing in China as the country ages. The U.N. forecasts that the number of Chinese aged 65 and older will rise from 170 million in 2020 to 390 million by 2060.

Given the growing importance of helping older people maintain their independence, Whill foresees a shift in consumer preferences away from low prices toward quality in the Chinese wheelchair market.

Demonstrations of self-driving wheelchairs are underway at airports in the U.S. and Europe as the number of users rises and staff to push them grow scarce. The demonstrations aim both to show how the devices can address a growing social need and to highlight airport services.

In Japan, Tokyo's Haneda Airport has began offering self-driving wheelchairs at its domestic Terminal 1 in June. "Japan can lead the world in products and services for the elderly, as its population is aging faster than any other country," Sugie said.

It remains to be seen whether electric wheelchairs developed in Japan to serve the needs of its graying population will be widely accepted in China, which has become a global innovation leader in its own right.

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