Bed helps Hawking live dream
Other than being the same age, John Wilkinson never had
much in common with world-famous astrophysicist Stephen
Hawking. Until now.
Wilkinson is chairman of WCW Inc., a Hoosick Falls company
that makes high-tech, air-filled mattresses under the brand
Natural Form. Hawking, author of "A Brief History of Time,"
took his first zero-gravity flight six miles above the Earth on
Where the two 65-year-olds converge is the bed Hawking
lay on - and floated over - during his afternoon flight. WCW
custom-built the platform for Hawking, who uses a wheelchair,
to ensure his delicate frame was not injured by the g-forces
experienced while flying above Florida's Cape Canaveral.
For Hawking, who has spent his life theorizing about the universe, it was a chance to experience a lifelong dream. "As you can imagine, I'm very excited," Hawking told the Associated Press before boarding the plane. "I have been wheelchair-bound for almost four decades. The chance to float free in zero-g will be wonderful. "For Wilkinson, contributing to Hawking's journey was an opportunity too good to pass up. "It is, for us, a major marketing opportunity," he said. WCW first heard of the project about two months ago from Zero Gravity Corp., a company that takes paying customers on free-fall joy rides inside the belly of a modified Boeing 727. For about $3,500, passengers are able to experience the weightlessness of outer space as the plane rises and falls on a parabolic flight from 34,000 to 24,000 feet and back again. The technique was first used to train astronauts. Zero Gravity had agreed to take Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge in England, on a flight in Florida. Hawking, who has done groundbreaking work on black holes and the origins of the universe, suffers from the paralyzing disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and communicates through a speech synthesizer using tiny movements in his face. WCW was contacted because Hawking's physicians were worried about what the g-forces might do to him. They wanted Hawking to be able to lie on a mattress that would diffuse the forces during the flight. WCW's mattresses, which start around $2,000, use a variety of air bladders filled with foam and a patented valve system. The bladders, or "cells," constantly let air in or out to create an ideal amount of pressure for the person. The technology is especially useful for the bedridden, who are at risk of bedsores caused by pressure points on traditional mattresses. WCW's mattresses have been used by the late actor Christopher Reeve and by Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine who uses a wheelchair. Wilkinson, a native of Bennington, Vt., is a mechanical engineer. He got the idea for an air-based mattress system in 1981 and soon launched HealthFlex Inc. and the product Pressure Guard. Albany Medical Center was one of the business's first major customers. Wilkinson sold that companyin 1992, but began making new mattresses through WCW three years later. Today, WCW employs his wife, Jean, two sons and a daughter -and nearly 200 others. Manufacturing takes place in Hoosick Falls, a former mill town only a few miles from the Vermont border. Wilkinson declined to release sales figures, but said WCW has been growing about 40 percent a year for the past five years. It just took a first step into retail with a store in Raleigh, N.C. Certainly, there's a lot of money in the mattress market. Select Comfort Corp. of Minneapolis, maker of the air-based Sleep Number beds, reported sales of $800 million in 2006, according to the financial Web site http://www.hoovers.com. In comparison, Sealy Corp., the country's No. 1 seller of bed products, has annual sales of about $1.6 billion.Wilkinson said his company expects to double the number of people it employs in three years. "We have some major contracts coming," he said. Alan Wechsler can be reached at 454-5469 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Executives at WCW Inc., a product development and manufacturing company, believe they have the technology to create a paradigm shift in the bedding industry as significant as the introduction of memory foam two decades ago.
In the coming year, the company plans to make its patented Self Adjusting Technology nonpowered air mattresses, which have been widely adopted in the medical field, more broadly available to consumers. It’s actively seeking licensing deals, strategic distribution agreements and retail partners.
John W. Wilkinson, founder and chief executive officer of the company based in Manchester Center, Vt., began experimenting with air-based support systems in 1981. An engineer who built his career in the steel industry, Wilkinson started his search for a better sleep surface using his garage as a lab and inner tubes for material.
“I had some ideas and had a friend in the nursing home industry who was willing to test the prototypes on his patients,” he says.
When the experiments proved successful, Wilkinson applied for patents and founded HealthFlex, his first medical bedding company. As HealthFlex gained market share, it also garnered the attention of Span-America Medical Systems Inc., a company in Greenville S.C., that offers pressure management systems to the health care industry.
In 1995, Wilkinson sold his company to Span-America and founded WCW as an original equipment manufacturer primarily for Span-America. He worked for Span-America as senior vice president of product development for three years before leaving to research and develop other technologies on his own through WCW.
Wilkinson obtained a patent for the first self-adjusting air system in 1998. It was, he says, the breakthrough he needed to create a sleep surface that could both reduce pressure on the body and support its alignment in a natural position.
“What Self Adjusting Technology does is to sense a specific body weight on the sleep surface,” he says. “Once a body is on the mattress, the system senses both the load and the body type and adjusts the internal pressure and volume to maximize the displacement of the body over the surface.”
Why does that matter? Because displacement, Wilkinson says, reduces pressure and shear—the force applied to the skin when a body sinks too deeply into a mattress. Shear is as uncomfortable as pressure points, causing sleepers to toss and turn.
Wilkinson believes that WCW’s Natural Form sleep system—the technology’s brand name—is the most effective bed set on the market to reduce both pressure and shear.
“Here’s the issue: A spring or foam mattress cannot displace; it can only absorb weight. A waterbed displaces, but there is no control over volume,” Wilkinson says. “Our systems are always going to be equal to the ambient conditions. They’re smart beds and work without a motor or pump.”
WCW executives have so much confidence in the efficacy of their technology that they talk in terms of creating the next industry-changing mattress. The enthusiastic reception of self-adjusting systems in the acute-care industry fuels their faith.
Leading medical centers, including Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, use the company’s self-adjusting systems throughout their institutions, Wilkinson says.
“We’ve also been embraced by the international medical community and ship 50% of what we produce” to 23 countries, he says.
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