Swett Equity: Inventing a Way to Enjoy the Beach
Swett Equity Wheelchair-bound inventor finds a way to help others with mobility impairments enjoy the beach By Zandra Wolfgram Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
When John Swett couldn’t find a beach-friendly wheelchair to enjoy the Panama City beaches while on vacation with his grandchildren, he decided to invent one.
Fast-forward a few years: Swett’s sketch of an electric, all-terrain vehicle is now known as the Beach Scoot Accommodator II (patent pending). The two-passenger, disabled-friendly scooter handles all terrains, from beach sand to snow, ice, mud and even wooded trails. It’s a green all-season vehicle that is easily operable, runs on a 24-volt electric system and zips along at up to 6 miles per hour for five miles on one battery charge.
A jovial, easygoing character who grew up in Marianna, Swett understands his customers’ needs firsthand. A sudden bout with polio at the age of 5 affected 90 percent of his body. Though he used a wheelchair, in time his strong upper body allowed him to enjoy swimming and water sports as a youth, which led to a lifelong love of Florida’s beaches.
In recent years, Swett has experienced post-polio syndrome, which brought on a degeneration of muscle memory. Now, at 61, he relies on his Beach Scoot even more to assist his daily mobility.
“I understand the needs of the mobility-impaired. We’re in the same boat,” he said. “I also know what is really important to people: being with friends and family and enjoying the simple things in life.”
Armed with his family’s support, his own tenacity and a background in metal fabrication manufacturing, Swett and his brother, Tom, spent 16 months in research and development, testing his prototype at St. Andrews State Park “just to get the machine to run in the beach sand.”
Swett’s first step was to research his market. He relied on a number of resources, including manufacturing magazines, the National Center on Accessibility and the U.S. Census Bureau, for statistics on mobility. His research revealed that 18.5 million American adults are physically impaired, at least 18 percent of retirement-age adults have walking impairments, and nearly 60 percent of the U.S. adult population is obese and therefore not as mobile as they might otherwise be.
“When you combine all of that, you can see that there is quite a big need,” Swett said.
While in the development phase, he drew on his experiences troubleshooting in the poultry food-processing plants of northern Georgia to make his machine “beach-worthy.”
“All the wiring, framework and even fasteners needed to be corrosion- and rust-resistant,” he said. “I was familiar with various aluminums and metals, so we took time on that.”
Altogether, Swett estimates that his idea took about two years from concept to completion. For the lifelong tinkerer, the idea came easily; it’s the financing that has presented the biggest challenges. Although he had a fully operational prototype and business plan in hand, Swett still was denied loans from 10 banks that, he says, “do not want to fund research and development.” Therefore, he and his brother pooled their retirement funds into their product.
“We got it to market; now we are in need of financial assistance to take it from here,” Swett said. “We are moving away from bank loans and are now looking for an investor to help our program grow.”
Swett plunged into promotion of the Beach Scoot, including development of a Web site, local advertising, trade shows and public relations. He snagged exposure in various trade and consumer magazines, including Coastal Living.
Though the final result is “beyond his expectations,” if he had it to do over again, Swett claims he would have spent even more time researching manufacturers.
“We had a lot of trial and error with companies claiming to do things they could not or who could not meet our quality expectations,” he said. Being a customer himself, Swett refused to compromise on quality. “I use it myself. I don’t have time for costly repairs. I want it to be as bulletproof as possible.”
The Swetts have a modest supply of Beach Scoots on hand, all made locally in Panama City Beach. They also welcome custom orders, which take from six to eight weeks to build.
“It is industrial grade. It’s not typical. That’s why it works so well,” Swett explained.
Beach Scoots retail for $7,900 each (beachscoot.com). They are also available for daily rental all along the Emerald Coast, from Mexico Beach to Fort Walton Beach. According to Swett, the rental fee ranges from $50 to $65 per day and includes delivery and pick-up.
With a market base of disabled U.S. travelers who spend $1.2 billion a year on vacations, Swett’s only road bump is making his product widely available.
“I want to make them available in parks and where there is public access. If we make beaches accessible, they’ll come to our beaches,” he said.
Although Swett was optimistic when the state park on St. George Island, a 22-mile-long barrier island 80 miles southwest of Tallahassee, welcomed Beach Scoots in a pilot program, the state has yet to purchase any equipment for use there.
“Now we find out that all the state parks and municipalities do not allow motorized vehicles on the beach,” Swett said with a sigh. “These ordinances were created 30 and 40 years ago. Now we have new technology and need to upgrade the ordinances. We fought in Bay County and won in Panama City Beach and Mexico Beach. We are breaking ground nobody’s broken before.”
This stumbling block is just another hurdle Swett is determined to overcome.
“I will fight the system,” he said. “I don’t give up. I’m not doing this just for myself. It’s one of my life missions. I’m doing this for anybody and everybody.”
Despite the setbacks to fully realizing his dream, Swett has already rolled right on to his next venture – development of a Beach Wagon that enables wheelchair-bound customers to secure their chair to a wagon, which can be pulled onto the beach.
“My work to develop other ways for the disabled to enjoy life outdoors and water sports is ongoing,” he said. “I guess I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to improving the quality of life for others.
“A question I ask is what kind of value do people put on quality of life? It’s a question everyone needs to ask themselves,” he said.
When he’s not questioning the status quo or inventing new ideas, Swett’s quality of life seems to be measured simply by how many of his 12 grandchildren he can take to the beach on a given day. n
A few minutes with an inventor
How has living with polio and now post-polio syndrome played a part in how you raised your family? I believe I’ve made my family more aware of dealing with people with disabilities and the importance of giving back. I have taught them (five children ages 25 to 34) how to build a wheelchair ramp, and every one of them has built dozens of ramps as well as made bathroom modifications for others. I’m very proud of them for taking an interest and wanting to learn how.
What are you most proud of? I am proud of starting nonprofit organizations (Ramps for Champs and Assisting the Needs of the Disabled in the Atlanta area) and designing the Beach Scoot, because it has the potential to change millions of lives.
Have you felt discriminated against because you’re in a wheelchair? Sure. I was almost arrested going to the beach, and it causes me to have anger. I fought polio, now I fight PPS (post-polio syndrome), and authorities tell me I cannot enjoy the beach and parks? I will fight that every way I can, and that takes time and energy.
Describe some of the recent setbacks you’ve had. We tried to rent a scooter to a disabled Vietnam veteran. He went to St. Andrews State Park to enjoy the beach, but they wouldn’t let him into the park. He was very angry and disappointed. So of course we lost the sale, but more importantly, we deeply disappointed him.
How do you define success? Success to me is taking on a challenge and sticking with it to see if it works. It’s taking the step to do it. It’s easy to talk about something and never get around to doing it.
Who do you most admire? I admire people with disabilities who get out and try to make a difference in the world. If you want to make a difference, get out and get things changed.
Do you have advice for other would-be inventors? Do more research and find out what difficulties you may have with your product. I didn’t expect half of what I’ve had to do. The hurdles we’ve run into have shocked me and been a little disappointing, and the fact that we’ve had to go out to different agencies and defend the need for our product has been a surprise. The reluctance to change and having to prove our value; the attitude and the resistance that goes along with accepting our invention was not expected. By no means did I think I’d be running into brick walls. I thought I’d get some applause.
What is the best advice you were ever given? Accept challenges and always try.
Do you have a favorite word? “Thank you.”