Portal automatically opens doors for wheelchair users, no button pressing required

Buttons or plates (like the one above) that automatically open doors can do a lot to make a building more accessible, but they aren’t always a perfect solution. For wheelchair users with limited upper body movement, the buttons can be tough to hit. Other times, the button is installed poorly — too high, too low, or just too far from the door to be useful, with the door closing too fast.

Portal Entryways is a startup trying to make these existing buttons more useful. They’ve built a device that piggybacks on top of existing access buttons, allowing these doors to be opened automatically (and, importantly, kept open) when a wheelchair user approaches. The button, meanwhile, continues to work just as it did before.

Portal’s product has two components: a piece of Bluetooth Low Energy-enabled hardware that hooks into the existing door opening system, and a companion app running on the wheelchair user’s smartphone. The app searches for these Bluetooth Low Energy devices. When it finds one within range, it sends a command to open the door, keeping it open until the user has passed through the doorway. Portal-enabled doorways are marked with a sticker, helping users to know which ones will open as they approach.

Portal is a part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 class, but it began its life as a student project in an innovation program at BYU which tasked students with solving a real-world problem. Co-founder Sam Lew tells me they initially started out working on an entirely unrelated concept (shipping logistics). After they met someone on their school campus who had arranged a schedule of friends to open doors or press accessibility buttons that had been installed out of reach, they shifted focus.

It’s still early days, but they’re aiming to grow quickly. They’re approaching 250 devices installed, with a goal of having contracts signed for around 1,250 devices by the end of the month.

Right now, the company’s founders are doing the installations themselves. Different doors use different buttons and motors. Some mechanisms are connected by wire, while others are all wireless. Getting things all connected — at least right now — requires a bit of specialized knowledge. But co-founder Josh Horne tells me that it’s compatible with most of the popular existing mechanisms. “As long as it’s not ancient,” he says, “it should work.”

The company’s main focus right now is on locations with many publicly-accessible doors, like universities or malls. They’re still working out exactly what it’ll cost in the future, but they estimate around $100-200 per door per year.