Entrepreneur with SMA Starts Accessible Car Company

Stacy Zoern has entered yet a new phase in her already eventful life — this time at 25 miles per hour.

When Zoern, 32, went in search of a vehicle she could drive with muscles severely weakened by spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), she looked everywhere. Her Internet search led her to Hungary and the Kenguru— pronounced "kangaroo"— a small, electric-powered vehicle that can be operated by a driver in a wheelchair. There was nothing like it anywhere else.

She was so impressed that she not only made plans to buy a Kenguru, but she went into business with the company that makes them.

A man in a wheelchair enters a Kenguru
The current Kenguru requires upper body strength to drive, but a model is in the works for those with limited upper body strength.

Knowing that such a vehicle would "really improve the quality of life for a lot of people," she started Community Cars Inc., based in her hometown of Austin, Texas. Last year, her company merged with Kenguru Services KFT, and in January, the new company unveiled the first vehicle manufactured at its new plant in Pflugerville, just north of Austin.

Accessible transportation equals independence

A graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Zoern recently gave up her practice of patent litigation at an Austin law firm and is now a full-time entrepreneur.

"I spend two or three days a week at the factory. Other days I work from my apartment. I work most nights till 10 or 11 at night," Zoern said of the all-consuming project she's taken on. "I work almost every weekend. It's pretty much my entire life."

She also attends trade shows in this country and in Europe, showing the demo model of the car and drumming up worldwide interest.

Transportation is an important aspect of independence for Zoern. "I have to rely on people for everything. I can't get dressed by myself, I can't get out of bed, I can't get to the restroom on my own. So to be able to leave my home and run errands, just to get out and go for a drive, it's going to be awesome," she said.

Right now she has a VW Eurovan with a lift, but it isn't outfitted for her to drive. "My friends, family and caregivers all have to take me everywhere."

Kenguru still being adapted

Zoern's own Kenguru is still in the future. The Hungarian model is made with handlebars like those of a motorcycle, which, she explains "is for people who have normal upper body strength, like people with spinal cord injuries in manual chairs."

Community Cars is designing a second model that can be driven with either a joystick or a very small 5-inch-diameter steering wheel.

This, she said, is "the kind that people with muscular dystrophy will more than likely need. If you can operate an electric wheelchair you can operate the vehicle."

Zoern has vivid daydreams of her life with the Kenguru: "Here's what I imagine for myself and other people in an urban setting, or even in the suburbs. It's for community driving, kind of like a moped. I imagine being able to go to my favorite little Mexican restaurant, or go to a doctor's appointment on my own. Or go the movie theater, meet my friends there, and they don't have to cart me around all the time. It will give me the freedom that I've never had before."

At this time, the company has orders for vehicles from France and the United Kingdom. The first of the 200 vehicles they plan to build this year will go to fill those orders in Europe.

Zoern and her 13-person staff are seeking out a dealership in Texas that can serve the United States. The vehicle, which will retail for about $25,000, is licensed for street driving in this country but not for highways.

Childhood battles, adult victories

Zoern's dreams of independent transportation fit in with a lifetime of breaking through obstructions and finding her way despite them.

As detailed in her 2006 autobiography, I Like to Run, Too, she has battled obstacles from the public school system, the university dormitory arrangements, Texas social services agencies, airlines and cruise ships, the general public and more. For example, because she required transportation from the special education program throughout her school years, she was required to take frequent examinations to measure her intellectual capacity, despite her superior grades and placement in a gifted program.

Profile photo of Stacy Zoern
Entrepreneur Stacy Zoern

The fight and curiosity she developed during childhood and college has served her well in her new business venture. Beginning by contacting people she knew and widening her circle from there, she has secured $1.75 million for Community Cars from "a couple of angel investors" and other private sources.

She was surprised to find public and commercial sources of funding virtually closed to her.

"It's almost impossible for a startup to get off the ground in this economic climate," she found. "We have this amazing project that everybody’s so excited about, but traditional lenders won't even talk to you unless you have two to three years of cash flow. A green car for people with disabilities seems like a no-brainer, but we went to the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, the Small Business Administration," all with no luck.

One helpful source was PeopleFund, a nonprofit organization based in Austin that helps startups.

Fulfilling her dreams

The new skills and knowledge she's acquiring every day are thrilling to Zoern.

"It's the most exciting thing I've ever done. I feel very alive," she noted. "This is a breath of fresh air because it's a meaningful project to be a part of. I am learning so many things every day. The technical aspects of the vehicle, financial, business operations. Luckily I've got a really great pool of advisers."

The young company has faced its share of challenges. They had complete designs from Hungary, but had to redraw all of them in inches because U.S. companies won't take orders for steel in metric units.

Zoern's employees include three people who came over from Hungary, and her father, Jay, who is putting his sales and financial background to use as vice president of operations. The cars are virtually hand-built because the costs of automating the operation are prohibitive at this stage.

Community Cars is fulfilling Zoern's dreams in many ways. "I'm doing something where I feel like I can contribute, use my knowledge of living with a disability and also be challenged. It's something a lot bigger than anyone here."

Her new life without a law firm salary requires some sacrifices. She earns some money from contracting to do legal work, and sometimes pays herself a salary from the new company. "I make a little bit here and there, enough to survive. You have to take risks and sacrifice if you want to do something meaningful."

One sacrifice is to "stop spending money. I don't go shopping any more. I'm eating cereal for dinner," she said with a laugh. 

Not only is the Kenguru energy-efficient and liberating, it also offers a cost-saving option for people with disabilities. "For someone in an electric wheelchair, it's this at $25,000 or a $100,000 van. That's finally going to be an option.”

Her new venture allows little time for a social life. But she was gratified when several friends attended the company's grand opening in January to show their support. Soon, in her new Kenguru, she'll be able to join them at restaurants or the movies or their homes, without having to ask anyone for a ride.

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