A Social Psychologist in Rehabilitation Technology

David Boninger
Three Rivers

I’ve always been a “people person” — mesmerized by simple observations and always puzzling over why we do the things we do. My curiosity was further fueled by a family history peppered with people whose fate was determined by things that other people did that defied explanation. Both my mother and father were indelibly scarred by the events of World War II and Hitler’s assault (only one of my four grandparents survived the war). Thus, began my interest in psychology.

So off I went from the safe haven of my youth growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, to Northwestern University to study psychology. After suffering through four losing football seasons as a psychology major at Northwestern, I decided to pursue graduate studies in social psychology at Ohio State University. I figured that even if my graduate work failed to provide all the answers, I would at least have the opportunity to root for a winning football team.

I received my PhD in social psychology from Ohio State in 1991, and began my first position as assistant professor of social psychology at UCLA. At that time, I had the same career aspirations that almost all new faculty members have. I wanted to do quality research on topics that fascinated me, I wanted to teach students about social psychology and, most of all, I wanted to help students develop the skills that would allow them to become researchers and teachers themselves someday. I loved my job, especially the chances I had to work closely with bright and highly motivated students. In fact, things could not have been better (almost). I had just gotten a great job at UCLA, and my wife, Faith Gleicher (who was also a social psychologist), had just gotten a great job at UC Santa Barbara. The nice thing about this complicated situation is that we lived in Camarillo, a nice little town about half way between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The bad thing about this complicated situation is that collectively, Faith and I spent about 20 hours a week commuting. For me, it seems that 95 percent of my lengthy commute was spent sitting in the parking lot that Los Angelinos euphemistically call the 405 (i.e., Interstate 405).

Except for the commute, our academic careers were progressing wonderfully. However, at some point all that sitting in traffic made each of us a little restless. We got even more restless when we pondered how we would someday juggle the demands of the dual commute and our dual careers with the demands of being doting parents. In other words, we loved our jobs so much that the commutes were worth it, but we weren’t so sure that we would feel the same way once the little ones arrived. So we took a leave of absence from our jobs, packed up everything we had and moved to Israel — in the complete absence of any jobs. Of course, the good thing about not having a job is that you don’t usually have much of a commute. Faith quickly learned to speak Hebrew, and I polished the Hebrew I had studied in college. During that first year, I was offered a job in the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa and in the following year my wife had a job in the Department of Communication. Same university. No commute. Within a few years, we not only had two great academic positions, but we also found time to have two wonderful daughters. But the commute from Israel to the U.S. proved to be even worse than the commute from Camarillo to Los Angeles. Our daughters were growing up far away from their extended families. And so after 6 years in Israel, our thoughts turned back to the US. A sabbatical year (2000-2001) in Phoenix (where both my wife and I have family) turned into a permanent stay and a new adventure in the U.S.

The new adventure involved leaving the familiar confines of academia and entering the entrepreneurial world of the start-up business. In a partnership between myself, my brother Ron Boninger and Chris Willems, we started a company (Three Rivers) whose mission is to use advances in rehabilitation technology to create products that enhance the mobility and independence of people with disabilities, particularly people in wheelchairs. Why a business venture? My brothers and I had always mused about “what fun it would be” to start a business together, and Ron has an MBA from Kellogg and has years of business experience to help navigate what for me were very unchartered waters. Why wheelchairs? My other brother, Michael Boninger, MD, and his colleague Rory Cooper, PhD, are leading researchers (and inventors) in the area of wheelchair-related technologies. Michael said, “Why don’t you take to the marketplace what we’ve developed in the lab?”

Three Rivers was born and I had something to do that used many of the tools that I had honed as a professor in psychology. In particular, I began working full time to acquire federal grant funding to assist in the transfer of these technologies to the marketplace — and grant writing was home turf for me. The experience paid off: Three Rivers has now been the recipient of nine Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR and STTR) grant awards from the NIH and the National Institute of Disability and Rehabilitation Research. These technology transfer grants have already enabled us to bring two products to market. One is the Natural-Fit, which is an ergonomic wheelchair handrim that provides a more comfortable fit to the hand and eases the stress and strain of daily wheelchair propulsion. The other is the SmartWheel, which is a sophisticated measurement tool and the only commercial product in the world that precisely examines wheelchair propulsion in the natural environment of the wheelchair user. The SmartWheel is used in research on the causes of pain and injury among wheelchair users, and it is also being developed as a leading edge clinical tool that provides clinicians with the ability to quantify the process of wheelchair selection, fitting and propulsion training. In recognition of our efforts, Three Rivers was the recipient of the 2003 Innovative Company of the Year Award in the Start-Up Category for the state of Arizona.

I have learned a lot about business. And here’s one thing I’ve learned: sound knowledge of psychology is a good thing to have in business. So, I’m having fun, I love that were trying to get innovations out to people who need them and I’m glad that I can still be a people-person, a psychologist and a business person all at the same time!

(Originally published in the February 2004 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)