CHICAGO – As a kid, Arielle Rausin had little interest in sports — even before the car accident that paralyzed her from the waist down at age 10.
She remembers being forced to participate in gym class at her Florida middle school, until she met a teacher who invented ways for her to play alongside her classmates.
“It was the first time I realized sports could be really fun even though I was in a wheelchair,” said Rausin, now 26.
She joined the cross-country team and discovered she liked to race. She got her first racing wheelchair in high school. By the time Rausin graduated, she’d landed a spot on the University of Illinois’ wheelchair track team and a place in its business school.
That’s where she got the idea for a class project that she has since turned into a growing business. Rausin is the founder of a company that uses 3-D printing technology to make the gloves that wheelchair athletes wear when competing. In the three years since launching Ingenium Manufacturing, she says she has sold more than 4,000 pairs to athletes in 31 countries while continuing to chase her own athletic goals at races around the world.
It started with an assignment for a course on 3-D printing at the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus. Rausin had to choose an item to scan and print. Her coach suggested she try to make a racing glove.
“I thought it would be a prototype,” Rausin said. “I was shocked when it worked and was durable and strong.”
There are two main styles when it comes to gloves that protect athletes’ hands when pushing racing wheelchairs: soft gloves, made from rubber and leather, and hard plastic gloves.
Which is best comes down to what works for the athlete, coaches said. But many prefer plastic because the hard surface absorbs less energy when athletes push the wheel.
Before 3-D printing was an option, plastic gloves had to be molded and sculpted by hand. That means they’re custom-built to the athlete’s liking. But because they’re made by hand, it’s virtually impossible to get the left and right gloves exactly symmetrical or perfectly duplicate a worn-out pair, said Adam Bleakney, Rausin’s coach at the University of Illinois.
After logging thousands of miles with one set of gloves, “even a small, minute change feels like miles of change,” Bleakney said.
The 3-D printer makes it easier to replicate gloves, Bleakney said.
Initially, all Rausin’s gloves were custom-made. She still makes custom gloves for elite athletes but wanted to offer an option that would be accessible to a wider audience, including beginners and youth athletes, and designed a version sold in a range of sizes online.
Those gloves sell for $150, though Rausin said she gives racers under 18 a discount since the cost of equipment — particularly racing wheelchairs — can be a barrier to entry in the sport.
Soft gloves from Harness Designs, a popular brand, cost $190. Custom-molded gloves are even more expensive if an athlete or coach can’t make them on their own, Rausin said. She tried to make her own pair in high school but spilled boiling water on her leg when trying to heat the plastic. She stuck with soft gloves until college.
A Canadian company, Revolution Sports, also has begun making 3-D printed gloves, but Rausin said it hasn’t affected her sales and thinks the competition is good for innovation.
Innovation can be slow when it comes to gear for adaptive sports because the lack of visibility makes it easy for people to underestimate the potential market, said Teresa Skinner, executive director of ParaSport Spokane, a Washington-based organization.
“Regardless of how big it gets, I so appreciate that she decided to take on this project and turn it into a business and continues to promote the sport with technology that should have been there a long time ago,” she said.
Rausin wants to keep developing products for people with disabilities. Founding her own company means Rausin can try to fill those needs.