For years, Stacy Zoern, a Texas lawyer who lives alone and uses a 400-pound power wheelchair, yearned for more independence. Because of a neuromuscular condition, Ms. Zoern, 33, has never walked, and for a while drove a custom van. But the van was destroyed in a crash, and she didn’t have $80,000 to buy another.
“I was feeling frustrated and stagnant,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Austin. “I was so sick of being dependent on others to drive me places, but even when I had a vehicle I never felt safe driving a huge van at 70 miles per hour on the highway. I wondered how the technology might have changed since then.”
Two years ago, she began searching the Internet, using the phrase “wheelchair accessible transportation,” and came across a company called Kenguru, in Budapest. Its small, light, electric vehicles sounded perfect.
“I was ecstatic,” she recalled. “This vehicle will change my life. This is exactly what I want.”
When Ms. Zoern’s e-mails to the company went unanswered, she picked up the phone and called the chief executive, Istvan Kissaroslaki. He recalled their conversation this way. “I was on my way home from work when she called, and we spoke for 45 minutes. I would normally have told her, ‘Get in line.’ We had just lost all our bank financing, two million euros, after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. I told her to call me back in about four years.”
Instead, in an unusual international story of determination, friendship, innovation and entrepreneurship, the Austin-based company that the two have since formed, Community Cars, expects to produce its first vehicles this year. The so-called neighborhood cars will sell for about $25,000, and buyers may qualify for zero-emission or vocational rehabilitation tax incentives.
Ms. Zoern envisions the Kenguru giving wheelchair users the freedom to leave home spontaneously, without having to rely on friends, family or transportation services when they need to run errands, meet appointments or visit friends.
The cars have a steel frame with an outer body of fiberglass laminate. The interior is vinyl and molded plastic.
The Kenguru is seven feet long — nearly two feet shorter than the dinky Smart Fortwo — and five feet high. There is, of course, no room for a passenger. The car weighs just 900 pounds, batteries included.
Community Cars hopes to sell 400 vehicles in the first year of production, Ms. Zoern said, eventually increasing to 2,500 a year.
As a neighborhood vehicle, the Kenguru has a top speed of about 25 miles per hour and generally cannot be driven on highways. Travel range is estimated at 45 to 60 miles, with a charging time of eight hours.
The unlikely partnership of Ms. Zoern, a former intellectual patent attorney with no previous business experience, and Mr. Kissaroslaki, a Hungarian-born, American-educated veteran of the European auto industry, has been filled with challenges. But their common goal prevailed.
“I met with a couple of potential investors in Europe, but I didn’t like them,” Mr. Kissaroslaki said. As he sought new backers for his company, he and Ms. Zoern kept trading e-mails and talking. “I came to Texas and fell in love with Stacy’s personality and passion for this project. She’s not a business person at all, and that was hard in the beginning. It’s not like practicing law, where you can open a textbook.”
A second bit of luck brought Ms. Zoern her first investor, Michael Doherty, a neighbor in her apartment building in downtown Austin. Mr. Doherty, a former commodities trader from Brooklyn, who was as impressed as Mr. Kissaroslaki by her determination and vision, wrote a check for $100,000 to further develop the car. Later additional investments totaled $450,000.
She has since received $3 million more in financing, in exchange for equity, and is now chief executive of Kenguru; Mr. Kissaroslaki, who moved to Austin in September 2011 with his wife and young family, is chief operating officer.
They hired five mechanical and electrical engineers to help design the vehicle and adapt it from metric to American dimensions. “We couldn’t buy metric steel affordably, so we had to redo all our designs in Imperial measurements,” she explained. They also brought over engineers from Hungary for six months to help.
“There isn’t anything terribly unique in the manufacturing, but the vehicle itself certainly is,” said Jeff Gray, chief executive of VectorWorks Marine in Titusville, Fla., the contract manufacturer building the Kenguru.
Production is to start on July 15, Mr. Kissaroslaki said, with vehicles available for sale by the end of the summer. He said three dealers had been established in the United States, all of them in Florida, as well as one each in Britain, France, Germany and Spain. The company is in talks with additional dealers in five other European countries, he said.
A wheelchair user enters the car by opening the rear hatch with a remote control; a ramp lowers as the hatch swings up. Motorcycle-style handlebars control the the vehicle, though Ms. Zoern hopes to offer joystick controls within a couple of years.
The urge to build an affordable, accessible vehicle for wheelchair users is deeply personal for Ms. Zoern, but the company’s business model addresses a real need — the social and professional isolation of people who use wheelchairs. “People are stuck at home way more than they should be,” Ms. Zoern said. “They’re missing out on fun. I know very, very few people who drive themselves.
“If I wanted to run four errands on a Saturday, and needed to hoist myself in and out of a car every time, it takes a tremendous toll on my shoulders. I have a limited lifetime of lift.”
She quit her law job to start the company and says she has invested $70,000 of her own money in it, while borrowing an additional $70,000 on her credit cards. “I’m probably bankrupt if this company doesn’t succeed. I’m a single woman.”
With some 3.3 million Americans using wheelchairs, Ms. Zoern feels confident she will find buyers for the Kenguru. Like her, many of them now rely on the good will of friends or family for rides, or take public transportation.
“This is a niche market,” she said. “It’s not going to be the next G.M.” But she says she receives e-mails from interested potential customers from around the world.
“We don’t have huge aspirations, but we want to make the Kenguru available to all those who want or need it.”
This is a revolutionary breakthrough for people with disabilities. I mean for $25,000, people like Stacy get their independence. I've seen many clients who suffer from life changing disabilities that leave them unable to drive themselves. Seeing new innovative products like this gives me hope that people like Stacy won't be held back by their disabilities anymore.