In September 1987, Brian Watwood (Porter ‘73, sociology) was riding his bike down Edgewater Road in San Mateo when an oncoming car slammed into him head-on.
At the hospital, the doctor gave the self-described “jock” a grim diagnosis: he had sustained a C5-C6 spinal cord injury and would be an “incomplete quadriplegic” for the rest of his life.
Watwood, a former mountain search-and-rescue team member and ski patrolman, spent five months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. To his enormous frustration, he found it impossible to operate his own wheelchair. A tool for mobility became a form of confinement.
“To be able to drive a wheelchair was impossible for me,” says Watwood. “I couldn’t feel it with my arms and hands.”
Instead of giving way to despair, he channeled his energy into helping other disabled people achieve independence, while using his formidable skills as a tinkerer. The result is the Wijit, a lever-operated driving and braking device that attaches to manual wheelchairs.
Now Watwood is using the product himself, while marketing and promoting his invention for others.
Watwood was a free-thinker before he attended UCSC, but his college years taught him the values of entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency.
“A lot of UCSC students embrace the environment and philosophy of the campus,” says Watwood. “There’s a strong undercurrent that teaches you a lot of independence.”
Watwood, who dabbled in mechanics when he was growing up, had no formal engineering training, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his big idea. He moved to the Sacramento area and invested his own money in the project. He spent three-and-a-half years working with designers and engineers to develop a prototype.
Watwood began selling Wijits in 1997, and the product has gone through several redesigns since then. He took the frame-based Wijit off the market for more than five years, and launched the new wheel-based Wijit in 2006.
After surgery and years of rehabilitation, Watwood is now able to leave his wheelchair and move around, but he still takes the chair and his Wijit wherever he goes. His partial recovery earned him a new nickname: “SuperQuad.” In 1999, he was inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities.
A fellow Banana Slug teamed up with him to get the word out about Watwood’s project. Christine Lamson Taylor (Crown ‘90, economics) joined Wijit as CFO in March, after leaving a career as a partner with one of the “Big Four” accounting firms, Ernst & Young.
“I believe my decision to join Wijit links back to my time at UCSC,” says Taylor. “I was encouraged to be an idealist. UC Santa Cruz helped me become the person I am and shaped how I view the world today.”
Taylor says the Wijit is a healthier alternative to power wheelchairs because it allows users to get a cardiovascular workout, which is crucial to maintaining a healthy weight. It also has the potential to prevent shoulder pain and injuries that are associated with using a manual chair.
In addition to her finance and operational responsibilities, Taylor spends time promoting the Wijit nationwide.
Seeing people try the product was life-changingfor her, she said. Those are the times she’s relieved to have left the corporate world behind.
Says Taylor, “Working with Brian allows me to be part of something that has the potential to affect the lives of so many people. This need to have a sense of purpose is based on my time in Santa Cruz.”
This article appears in the fall 2011 issue of Review magazine.