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Stacy Zoern isn't reinventing the wheel--not yet, anyway. But her electric-car startup Kenguru promises to revolutionize mobility for millions of wheelchair users.
The Kenguru hatchback has no seats: Drivers access the vehicle using its rear-opening tailgate and automatic ramp, securing their wheelchairs via interlocking device. The Kenguru also eschews the conventional steering wheel in favor of motorcycle-style handlebars; a joystick-based control option is in development. The car checks in at about 1,000 pounds, 7 feet long and 5 feet tall, and it's optimized for in-town driving, with top speeds of 25 or 35 miles per hour and an estimated battery range of 60 miles.
"People with disabilities are a very underserved segment of the population, with huge needs," says Zoern, president and co-founder of the Pflugerville, Texas-based company. "Just getting to work is a huge challenge."
Born with spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, Zoern has spent her life in a wheelchair. When she was 19, she and her passenger were injured when she lost control of her customized Dodge Grand Caravan; it hit a curb, blew out a tire and crashed headfirst into a light pole, totaling the vehicle. Zoern didn't drive again for more than a decade; after graduating from The University of Texas School of Law, her job search was limited to legal firms within close proximity of her downtown Austin apartment. "Otherwise I would have had to pay for someone to take me to work each day," she explains. "But downtown living is very expensive. It cost my entire paycheck just to live there."
Zoern's frustrations ultimately prompted her to search the web for new transportation options, leading her to Budapest, Hungary-based Istvan Kissaroslaki, whose initial attempts to develop the Kenguru (Hungarian for "kangaroo") ran aground when a loan of 2 million euros fell through following the collapse of financial services giant Lehman Brothers. Zoern contacted Kissaroslaki in March 2010; five months later, he traveled to Texas and agreed to relocate operations to Pflugerville.
Zoern quit her position as an intellectual-property litigator in fall 2011 to focus on Kenguru, spearheading fundraising efforts, building a management team and meeting with potential manufacturing and engineering partners. Kenguru has secured $4 million from investors and in January announced plans to enter production later this year. The cars are projected to sell for about $25,000, although federal green energy and mobility tax incentives may reduce costs for qualified buyers.
Zoern acknowledges that she might never have become an entrepreneur if Kissaroslaki's original funding had panned out but says she can't imagine ever returning to a life practicing law. "Getting a startup off the ground is the most difficult thing you can do. There's one obstacle after another, and so much personal financial risk," she says. "But every single day, I get e-mails from people who visit our website and say, 'This is going to change my life. Thank you.' That lightens my load. It's a reminder of why I'm doing this."
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