Istvan Kissaroslaki was working in finance in Germany when he became sick -- sick enough that he had to stop working for six months. During his convalescence, his perspective on life changed: the finance world just didn't seem right anymore.
"I felt like I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life than making as much money as possible and trying to increase the yield of a financial institution," he said.
"I was thinking about teenagers in wheelchairs. What do they do when they’re sitting at home and their friends are getting driver's licenses?" Kissaroslaki said. "They hope to have public transportation or someone who can drive them. That was my motivation, to give these teenagers mobility." Between 2006 and 2008, Kissaroslaki worked on this car (which was originally designed by a company he worked for) as a side project. But in the middle of 2008 he realized that Kenguru needed more of his time and attention, so he quit his full-time job to work on the car instead.
In 2009, when the project was in limbo because of financial problems, Stacy Zoern, a Texas lawyer disabled by a muscle disease, happened upon Kenguru online and reached out to Kissaroslaki.
"I told her what happened and that we’re not building them and I’m back fundraising. This answer didn’t make her happy, and she kept calling." Kissaroslaki said.
He went to visit her in Austin a few months later, when he decided to give her a piece of the company and they started working on Kenguru together. A year later, Kissaroslaki moved from Hungary to Austin. Now, they're even earning shout-outs from President Obama.
Kenguru decided to make the car electric for practicality's sake. "It’s more comfortable to ride in a small vehicle that's electric than a small one with a combustion engine," Kissaroslaki said. "Plus, subsidies are more likely to be given by governments if the product is green."
The Kenguru is definitely small -- smaller than a Smart Car in fact. It can travel up to 25-35 miles per hour (depending on the regulations in your state) and around 60 miles a day. The first vehicles will be rolling off the assembly line sometime in 2015.
"The first generation vehicle will have a retail price around $25,000," Kissaroslaki said. "Our goal internally is to dramatically reduce this price over the first three years, to somewhere under $15,000."
Most customers, he adds, are paying a fraction of the cost, and many pay nothing. This is due in part to subsidies for eco-friendly vehicles, but the biggest deduction available in the US and western Europe is if someone needs the vehicle to go to school, work, or otherwise engage in a way that's beneficial to their country. Some agencies or vocational rehab programs will pick up 95-100 percent of the cost in this case.
"For any city, for any government, it makes sense to invest $50,000 to $100,000 in someone in a wheelchair who’s eager to go to school or work," Kissaroslaki said.
Kissaroslaki, Zoern, and the others at Kenguru are planning to come up with more ideas to increase accessibility and independence of those in wheelchairs, but the first generation vehicle is taking the front seat in priority.
"We will have other products out that will address the same market, but for now I would like to focus on the task in front of us," Kissaroslaki said.
--All images courtesy of Kenguru
Jessica Zischke is an editorial intern at Sierra. She is currently studying environmental studies at Dartmouth College, where she also works as a staff writer for The Dartmouth newspaper.