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Interviews

Talking to the Man Who Reinvented the Wheelchair

Pau Bach is the inventor of the 'Batec'—a third wheel attachment for the front of a wheelchair that has revolutionized the lives of disabled people around the world.

by Adrián Crespo
Mar 21 2016, 1:45pm

Pau Bach. All photos courtesy of author.

This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.

It's about a ten minute walk from Barcelona's Sant Quirze del Vallès station to the industrial site building where Pau Bach runs his operation. The only way to get there is through a tangle of neglected pavements, underbrushes, weeds, and unpaved curbs. It's a bit of a treacherous path by foot, so I can only imagine what it must be like if you're doing it in a wheelchair.

But Pau and his colleagues manage every day. I meet him in his office—he's 37 but looks much younger, and he speaks with a softness that leaves you wondering whether he's very shy or just completely engrossed in his work.

The latter seems more likely, given that he has almost literally reinvented the wheel. The Batec [Catalan for heartbeat] is a third wheel attachment for the front of a wheelchair, which has dramatically improved the lives and mobility of disabled people in 20 countries around the world. There's a small electric motor in the attachment, which makes a wheelchair totally autonomous, able to travel at 12 miles an hour and ride on every kind of surface—climb hills, go up and down curbs, course over bumps and holes in the ground.

Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was always the same: 'an inventor.'

Pau has had incredible success with his product. In 2014, his company had reached a turnover of more than $2 million, but his business seems almost circumstantial to him. He seems a little bored when he tells me about 2015's even more impressive figures. "I'm an inventor, not a businessman," he says.

Apparently, that's been the case ever since he was a child. "Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was always the same: an inventor. Later, I grew into a typical teenager, with a passion for motorcycles and cars." By the age of 18, he owned eight motorcycles and decided that he wanted a job in the motoring world.

But then, in 1996, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that would leave him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The two years after the accident were especially hard for him, he says: "I spent two years in hospitals and rehabilitation units. After I left, I had to completely change my life. Even going to the grocery store or meeting friends down the street was a struggle—I just couldn't do it. It was so frustrating." Over time, he built his arm strength up, which made life easier. "But still, there were barriers—curbs, hills, rough terrain—I couldn't cross. So I decided to use my brain to tackle that."

The wheelchair, according to Pau, was a "boring invention." He began to collect information and contact technicians and experts in different fields with the intent of making a wheelchair that was closer to a motorbike. The accident obviously didn't alter his passion for wheels. "For any motor enthusiast, wheels mean so much more than speed and autonomy. But they had become just a means for me to be able to go from the kitchen to the toilet. I needed to change that."

In 2004, he built his first machine—the prototype was his multi-award winning invention. "It changed my life completely," he says. "It transformed me. I could go out again and have a drink without having to ask my wife or parents to pick me up—I could travel on my own. I went from being someone who needed help from others, to someone who could help others.

"The people who use the Batec now, paradoxically, probably have more mobility than their friends at times," he says. They're the ones going back to the pub to pick up a forgotten cardigan or purse when someone left it behind, because they can get there quicker than someone walking. Thanks to this attachment, disabled people do things they couldn't have imagined doing before, and, more importantly, they can do things they had given up on—like going to the countryside or exercising.

In 2009, after several prototypes, he founded the company with his brother and some other acquaintances, and he started developing Batec for the commercial market. They hired a tiny workshop just outside of Barcelona, and thanks to word of mouth, the sales started coming in. "Other wheelchair users would stop people with a Batec in the street and ask where they'd got it from," he says. Did he expect that he would be a multimillionaire in just five years? "Never. It honestly wasn't something I'd planned. The attachment was always just something I built for myself."

As soon as the interview is over, Pau and I go outside to take his photograph. By the front door, I see five of his wheelchair attachments—all owned by his staff. His own Batec is there too, which he attaches to his wheelchair, before speeding out the door.

A few hours later, I meet a friend who is also in a wheelchair. I mention Pau's invention and ask him if he would buy one. "At about $6500, the Batec mobile is still expensive," he replies. "That said, I think that for many quadriplegic people or people with limited mobility, that invention is an amazing leap forward. Everyone already knows about it, so hopefully in a few years it will also be available to more of us."