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Road trips can be a truly memorable experience for many of us. From the fun games, to frequent pit-stops at roadside dhabas and chai tapris, travelling in a car is usually considered a more convenient option.
However, for some, this can be rather a tough and painful ordeal.
“We don’t realise, but this getting in and out of a car can truly be difficult and painful for many, especially the elderly and the differently-abled. Think about it—first, you lower your hips, bend your knees, twist the joints and then balance the body on one leg to push one side inside, while simultaneously sliding the rest in. The same, in reverse, has to be done while coming out. Imagine the number of muscles and the pull and push involved in this entire process!” says 30-year-old engineer Ashwin Shreshta, the founder of Puducherry-based startup Vaahan.
In collaboration with the Accessibility India campaign, Ashwin, along with his 6-member team, has created a unique swivel seat called the Caruna that helps users to get in and out of a car with minimum effort, and just a simple press of a button.
“These seats fit into any vehicle and ensure accessibility, comfort and ergonomics functionality in just one click. The seats automatically swivel out to enable wheelchair transfers and walker transfers to the user’s vehicle, as conveniently as possible. And in the process, we make sure that your back, thighs and the lower hip are at their most convenient positions, to promote a good blood flow even during long rides. Using topologically optimised lean spiderweb metal design, the automatic mechanism blends into the vehicle interior, making it even better than a conventional vehicle seat,” explains the innovator.
A project that can potentially help thousands in the country, the Caruna seat is a product of years of research, testing, feedback and pure hard work.
From an Engineer to an Innovator
Born and raised in Puducherry, Ashwin was always interested in using technology for the larger good.
After graduating from Pondicherry Central University with a degree in mechanical engineering, he moved to Germany to do his masters in the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) Aachen University, one of the most renowned automotive institutes in the country.
At the university, both during his time as a student and then as a research assistant, Ashwin had the exposure to work in the areas of passenger safety, vehicle crash safety, automotive driver assistance systems—all to evaluate and ensure the safety of passengers through advanced technology.
With this knowledge and experience, he came back to India in 2016. He started an apprenticeship under George Mani, the prominent innovator and founder of Innova Pro Designs Pvt Ltd, at his industrial R&D center in Puducherry.
It was while working there, that Ashwin for the first time realised how inaccessible automobiles could be and began working on it to find a solution.
“An 80-year-old Puducherry-based businessman came to us, with this problem. He had to make frequent visits to Chennai every week via road, and the long travel used to cause him a great deal of pain in the knees. So, he wanted us to find an innovative technical solution to this. I was appointed on this case and was working with a team to build him an automotive recliner seat. Through this process, I got to have one-on-one interaction with him and many more, and came to realise the grave problems and psychological fear of travel among the elderly and differently-abled individuals,” shares Ashwin.
He adds that this experience was to be the first spark towards innovating the Caruna seat.
In the next seven months, he continued to work on the project and gathered valuable lessons and experience, while also skirting through various job opportunities.
“I sat for several interviews and got through many. But I felt something was missing. I wanted to see the impact of my work in front of my eyes, not while behind a cubicle,” says the engineer-turned-innovator who rejected high-paying job offers to finally start his own social innovation venture Vaahan in 2016 October.
Recalling his apprenticeship experience under Mani, and how it shaped his career, he adds, “While I learnt a lot in Germany, under the mentorship of inventor George Mani I learnt the most important lesson—to create something substantial out of minimal resources, for the common man. That valuable lesson has guided me through all these years.”
Driving change through innovation
Despite being registered in 2016, the startup Vaahan came into full-operation in 2017, with the Caruna project. However, after a few months of rigorous research and work to create the prototype, Ashwin ran out of funds and had to begin working on consulting projects.
During this time, he worked on some of the most prominent renewable energy projects including India’s first patented dual-axis solar concentrator dish project for steam cooking installed in IIM-Bangalore, and the fully-automated solar energy power plant called the Sunny Tracker developed and installed in IIT-Madras and Indian Institute of Science, Challakere.
His portfolio of exemplary work soon began to gather attention, and around the same time, Bengaluru-based Kickstart Cabs, a startup that provides cab services to the elderly and differently-abled, approached Ashwin to create specialised seats for their vehicles.
“Srikrish Siva, its co-founder, got in touch with me for car seats. Till then, they were importing similar seats from Sweden and the UK, but the high expense, in addition to the import duty and lack of self-serviceability was causing problems for them, despite having a substantial consumer base in the city. The meeting in a way bolstered the already brimming idea around Caruna and gave it more form, and soon the R&D on the swivel seats began,” says Ashwin, who spent almost two years perfecting the product.
From the prototype in 2018 to the final product launch in December 2019, the making of Caruna swivel seats has had its share of ups and downs. But, every time Ashwin faced a hiccup, his perseverance and help from various avenues including the 8 lakh grant received from IIM Calcutta Innovation, kept the project afloat.
Rising to success & future ventures
To ensure safety and functionality of the product, Vaahan took Caruna seats through several rigorous tests and comprehensive feedback surveys to finally open them for advanced bookings in 2020 January.
These seats have also been tested internally for crash safety, and in the case, there is one, it has been designed in a manner to deflect the forces away from the passenger and ensure the least impact.
Priced at Rs 75,000 + GST and installation, the seats are designed to be compatible across a variety of vehicles— from a Maruti 800 to an SUV—and are fully automatic.
“While the price might seem steep, it is rather competitive because a similar seat from the UK or Sweden would usually cost Rs 2 lakh per seat . However, we are doing our best to scale the price down in the near future,” says Ashwin, who has already received more than a dozen orders from individual buyers and is hoping to get many more in bulk from various organisations.
Hoping to scale up, the innovator also plans to create electric wheelchairs for cars and other assistive mobility products in this field. With over 3-patents to his name and many more counting, Ashwin is one of the most inspiring innovator-cum-changemakers who are genuinely using their knowledge to help change the world for the better.
To know more about Caruna seats, check out the website.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)