As an MIT freshman, Tish Scolnik considered becoming a doctor, but then something caught her eye: an ad for a class called "Wheelchair Design for Developing Countries." 

The class turned into a calling and a major, mechanical engineering. She won grants for trips to far-flung villages, from East Africa to India, where she met one wheelchair user after another, all facing the same predicament.

"It was so hard to get around – so not only in a place like Tanzania, where there often aren’t paved roads – you might be living in a remote village," she said. "If you can’t get around because you’re in a wheelchair, and it just doesn’t work on your terrain, you really are stuck at home."

Scolnik teamed up with two fellow students , Ben Judge and Mario Bollini, to develop a better wheelchair.

"We realized early on that what we were trying to do was make incremental solutions to products that already existed," she said, "and what was need was something brand new." 

And they found inspiration in something that exists even in the most remote areas of the world: bicycles. So they began building wheelchairs from bike parts.    

"Traditional wheelchairs are propelled by a push: you grab directly on to the wheel and push forward," she said. "Our chair uses this lever drive train that we designed: it’s more ergonomic – it’s more like a bench press; you push the lever forward to propel the chair."

The Freedom Chair took years to get right. One prototype was low to the ground, tough to get in and out of. Another version tried an office chair.

"We put our blood, sweat, and tears into this product, and we’re continuously coming up with new ideas for it, new versions we want to implement," Scolnik said.

Tish’s college project is now a start-up called GRIT. She’s CEO, and Ben and Mario are co-founders. Last year they sent 1,000 Freedom Chairs to people in developing countries.  

"The need for a product like ours is enormous," she said. "The WHO estimated about 65 million people in developing countries need a wheelchair to get around, and a majority of them live in rural areas that are very challenging to get around."

GRIT is based in Cambridge, so Scolnik knows the local topography brings its own challenges, like potholes. And in a couple of weeks, the first Freedom Chairs will be ready for U.S. customers.  Like the version that goes overseas, all the moving parts are bike parts, everything else is manufactured in here in Massachusetts.