​Toyota​ ​Mobility​ ​Foundation launches $4M prize for mobility tech targeting lower-limb paralysis

Toyota​ ​Mobility​ ​Foundation,​ a charity set up by Toyota in 2014 to help bring about “a truly mobile society,” has launched a $4 million competition to encourage the development of new smart mobility technology to support the lives of people with lower-limb paralysis.

Dubbed the ‘Mobility​ ​Unlimited​ ​Challenge​’, the competition — which has several rounds and prizes, leading up to the winner being unveiled in Tokyo in 2020 — is being run in partnership with the U.K.’s Nesta, and is open to teams around the world, including, of course, startups.

Specifically, Toyota​ ​Mobility​ ​Foundation and Nesta are on the look out for teams working on the creation of what it calls “personal mobility devices incorporating intelligent systems”. Whilst not limited to the following tech categories, this could include anything from exoskeletons,​ ​​artificial intelligence​ ​and​ ​machine​ ​learning,​ cloud​ ​computing​ ​to​ ​batteries.

However, although the Mobility​ ​Unlimited​ ​Challenge website contains a list of product ideas that would quality for entry to the competition, Toyota​ ​Mobility​ ​Foundation are keen not to point too much in any one direction or to presume it knows what mobility problems people with lower-limb paralysis face.

Instead, I’m told that “co-creation” is very much the mantra here and that there will be a crowdsourcing component to solicit the kind of things that innovators should focus on, which will in turn help determine which entries should be rewarded.

In addition, entrants will be expected to demonstrate how co-creation with people with lower-limb paralysis who are representative of the tech’s eventual users has shaped its creation and development.

Toyota​ ​Mobility​ ​Foundation are also stressing that the competition hopes to attract teams — startups, companies, academics etc. — who aren’t necessarily already working in assistive technology, although these are welcome too. The thinking here is to make the Mobility​ ​Unlimited​ ​Challenge as deep and wide as possible and not limit where new ideas and new approaches come from.

The Mobility Unlimited Challenge Prize is supported by a number of ambassadors from around the world, all of whom have experience of living with lower-limb paralysis. Global​ ​ambassadors​ ​include​: August​ ​de​ ​los Reyes​, Head of Design at Pinterest; Yinka​ ​Shonibare​ ​MBE​, Turner-Prize nominated British/Nigerian artist; Sandra​ ​Khumalo​, South African Paralympic rower; Indian athlete and campaigner Preethi​ ​Srinivasan​; Sophie​ ​Morgan (pictured)​, British TV presenter; U.S. Paralympian Tatyana​ ​McFadden​; and Rory​ ​A​ ​Cooper​, director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh.

Here’s a breakdown of the prize pot itself, which is more akin to a series of grants at various stages of the competition:

  • Discovery Awards – 10 awards of $50,000 (combined total: $500,000)
    Means-tested grants to support small, early stage innovators to enter the Challenge.
  • Finalist Grants – five awards of $500,000 (combined total: $2,500,000)Grants given to 5 finalists to spend during the Finalist Stage to develop their prototype
    device. Finalists will be selected from the eligible entries on the basis of their ability to
    meet the eligibility criteria requirements and their potential against the judging criteria.
  • Winner’s Award – one award of $1m (combined total: $1,000,000)
    Grant awarded to the finalist whose prototype device best meets the challenge statement, demonstrating how it meets the judging criteria.

Another thing to point out is that entrants retain any intellectual property they generate during the course of the Mobility​ ​Unlimited​ ​Challenge and as a recipient of any of the grants, with one main exception: They have to commit to commercialising any IP created using the grants within 7 years, or, if I understand correctly, it has to be licensed back to Toyota​ ​Mobility​ ​Foundation.

This, I’m told, is simply to ensure that entrants don’t sit on IP indefinitely and there is a genuine commitment to get the resulting product in people’s hands. However, you can check the relevant terms and conditions here.

Don’t mention the iBOT

Meanwhile, Toyota was recently criticised in relation to an announcement it made regarding a partnership with DEKA, the company behind the iBOT wheelchair founded by Dean Kamen of Segway fame.

A recent article in The Outline notes that a press release and video was issued by Toyota in May 2016 carrying the headline “iBOT Poised for Comeback,” resulting in a number of outlets, including TechCrunch, reporting that Toyota and DEKA are working on an updated version of the device. However, this now appears to be far from certain, and a year on there hasn’t been any further news on the iBOT’s status.

I asked Toyota to clarify the situation and was issued the following statement from Douglas Moore, Senior Engineering Manager, Partner Robots:

“We’re genuinely committed to mobility for all at Toyota. To do this we work on future-thinking concepts which will push the boundaries of what is considered possible within the area of personal mobility. We do not speak about future products, however, we continue to work with many partners in this area including DEKA, the developer of the iBot, and I look forward to sharing the results our collaborative efforts in the future.

In a follow up call with Moore, he told me that Toyota had licensed various balancing technologies held by DEKA for potential use in its assistive tech going forward and that the iBOT balancing tech could make a valuable contribution in future mobility products. However, the company couldn’t speak of unannounced products and Moore wasn’t in a position to say the iBOT was coming back, nor was he saying it wasn’t. Make of that what you will.