In 1966, René de la Tour severely injured his spine in an automobile accident, resulting in his dependence upon a wheelchair. However, this did not halt his independence and professional success; he went on to earn a degree in architecture and designed homes in the New Orleans area. In addition to his architecture career, de la Tour also qualified for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for wheelchair racing, winning four medals during the Pan American Games. It was not until 2000 when, after an accident at his Mandeville, Louisiana residence, de la Tour lost his independence. It was this incident that inspired the development of the Para Ladder® – a device which allows users with limited mobility to transfer from the floor or ground to a wheelchair. With his business partner Billy Vehnekamp, de la Tour founded We Care Designs, and has worked with hospitals and Veterans Administration facilities for the promotion of the Para Ladder. De la Tour shares his innovation story:
[Q] What inspired you to develop the Para Ladder?
[A] My wake-up call came in 2000 when I fell from my wheelchair at my home. I was alone and without the strength to get back into my wheelchair unassisted. While on the ground and waiting for my wife to return, I realized that I had lost my independence and some dignity. I searched but was unable to find a device on the market that would enable a person with limited mobility to quickly get back into their wheelchair. This seemingly hopeless situation impelled me to try to invent one. Over the next three years, I collaborated with numerous medical professionals from several specialties, experimented with and tested about 35 prototype devices, and ultimately chose one that met the design criteria I had established. The U.S. Patent Office granted a patent on my device in June 2003, and we began marketing it three years later as the Para Ladder®.
[Q] What is one thing We Care Designs is doing that no other company is doing?
[A] Due in large part to its functionality and other design features, the Para Ladder is a totally unique product in durable medical equipment markets. The uniqueness of the Para Ladder has always made me sensitive to pricing it so that its price is not an unreasonable obstacle to one’s acquiring one, and regaining independence and dignity.
Knowing the importance of returning independence to the limited mobility individual with the use of a Para Ladder, We Care Designs is committed to making the Para Ladder affordable to as many people as possible. To achieve this we do not take any of the profits or have anyone on salary. All profits are used for buying additional inventory, additional marketing, R&D for improvement or inventing accessories, such as a detachable Para Ladder carrier which will mount on a wheelchair.
[Q] When did you realize that the Para Ladder would be a success?
[A] I always believed that the Para Ladder would be a success, because of its unique functionality in every market we’ve offered it. Some of these markets include people who have limited mobility due to spinal cord injuries, people suffering from multiple sclerosis, spinal bifida, ataxia, cerebral palsy and acute arthritis, the elderly who may lack the strength or the assistance of a caregiver to regain a standing position, and persons with disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act who want to use swimming pools operated by public entities.
[Q] What challenges did you face in the development phase of the Para Ladder and how did you overcome them?
[A] Since I was already a paraplegic, I had an awareness of some of the design features I wanted my device to have. After experimenting and testing with over 20 prototype devices, I was able to better refine the design features I felt were necessary. These ultimately became the design criteria that guided my efforts during the development phase of the Para Ladder. The design criteria I ultimately adopted meant that a successful device should be functional enough to enable a limited mobility user to regain his wheelchair or a standing position promptly, safely and unassisted. Additionally, it had to be useable by anyone who has the use of both arms, uncomplicated to use, safe in all respects, light enough for limited mobility persons to move around, and collapsible to a size that promotes ease of transport.
[Q] What would you say to aspiring Louisiana entrepreneurs and innovators?
[A] Aspiring entrepreneurs should quickly learn about the various support organizations available in Louisiana to help new entrepreneurs succeed in manufacturing and marketing their services or products. The services these organizations provided are readily available, at no cost, and usually very helpful. For instance, a senior procurement counselor with the Louisiana Procurement Technical Assistance Center worked closely with me in 2010 on how to market the Para Ladder to the U.S. Veterans Administration in 2010. Her advice was professional, informative and timely. Since then, VA hospitals and clinics have become one of our biggest customers for the Para Ladder.