Barry Dean’s stomach jumped when he heard his buddy’s mom got hurt.
Fellow Nashville songwriter Troy Verges said his mother accidentally tipped over her power wheelchair. She injured her knee and had bad cuts and bruises on her face. And that hit close to home for Dean.
His teen daughter, Katherine, born with cerebral palsy, has been using a motorized wheelchair since she was 5.
“I just thought, oh my gosh, that would be horrible,” he said. “A fall can be catastrophic.”
Soon after, Dean — during a conversation with his engineer brother, Jered, — asked how they might make a safer wheelchair for the teen.
Three years and several million dollars later, the Dean brothers have created a “smart” accessory that stops wheelchairs from crashing into things or tipping over.
Now, at 53, Dean, who wrote Little Big Town mega-hits “Pontoon” and “Day Drinking,” has a second full-time venture: entrepreneur.
He and his brother have launched Luci, the name of the accessory, which has cameras and other tech gadgets and attaches to the bottom of motorized wheelchairs. It’s named for Katherine Dean’s favorite Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
“If cars auto stop,” Dean reasoned, “why not wheelchairs?”
The usually low-key Dean gets passionate when talking about his new product; after all, it’s tied to his love for his daughter.
He’s been fighting for Katherine Dean since she was born 16 weeks early.
‘Katie, you’re going to have to fight’
Dean fell in love with his wife, Jennifer, when the two worked for an education supplier in their small hometown of Pittsburg, Kansas.
On their second wedding anniversary, Jen Dean pushed her husband to chase his childhood dream and start making trips to Nashville to write songs.
Right after that, she felt nauseous for several days in a row. She was pregnant with a baby girl. They picked the name Katherine.
Five months later, her water broke. The couple panicked.
“We thought we were losing the baby,” Barry Dean said. “Jen had only been in maternity clothes for two weeks.”
They said a prayer together in the kitchen, and Jen Dean said quietly, “Now Katie, you’re going to have to fight.”
The couple rushed to the hospital, and the baby arrived two hours later and was rushed to the neo-natal intensive care unit.
Doctors told the couple their baby had brain bleeds and that she probably would never talk and would never have meaningful interactions with others.
“You can turn off those machines,” one doctor said, looking at the life support equipment keeping the baby alive.
His wife refused immediately, but Barry Dean asked her and the doctors for two hours. He called three friends for advice on what follow-up questions to ask the doctors.
The answers revealed “there might be a glimmer of hope for meaningful communications,” Dean said.
The machines stayed on. The baby came home four months later.
Katherine Dean was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, but she eventually started communicating with her parents, and she eventually hit some developmental markers, just much later than other children.
‘She brings light to the world’
“It’s like parenting in slow motion,” Barry Dean said, but his wife added quickly, “it’s so much better than we thought it would be.”
After dozens of surgeries and hundreds of appointments with doctors and therapists, Katherine Dean talks and laughs and sings. She loves the Beatles, just like her parents do.
At 19, she reads on a second-grade level and she walks with a walker occasionally to get some exercise.
Upbeat and bubbly, Katherine Dean’s chatty and curious with new people, asking their names, where they live, if they have pets.
“She touches their face, and she brings light to the world,” Barry Dean said. “She seems to know who needs a friend and who is down.”
Barry Dean got his first hit in 2004, “God’s Will” with Martina McBride, a song based on his daughter’s story.
The family moved to Nashville the next year so he could pursue songwriting full time and their daughter could be closer to a children’s hospital.
His friend’s mother’s wheelchair accident happened 11 years later. Then when his engineering brother visited, Barry Dean had a punch list for him:
Create a dry-wicking pillowcase because Katherine Dean drools overnight; make her living space easy to navigate; and create a way to stop her wheelchair from tipping.
Jered Dean knocked out the first in a couple of days.
The third one took a little longer.
At first, Jered Dean put a beeper on the wheelchair that let his niece know when her chair was about to hit something. But that just made her laugh, and she wanted to keep setting off the beeper.
The brothers kept at it, though, almost to the point of obsession.
“The bathroom scale is smart, a toaster is smart, surely a wheelchair can be smart. Surely somebody has done this!” Barry Dean said. “But we couldn’t find it.”
So they invented it.
And Barry Dean used his contacts and contacts of contacts to come up with patents, a marketing plan, a manufacturer and potential markets.
This fall, Luci will offer the devices for $8,500 each, and the Deans are hopeful insurance will pay for most of that cost for consumers.
While their business projections show their company will be profitable, Dean hopes for something more.
“We would love to see this be a catalyst for a whole new wave of development in this field,” he said.
“We want to change the experience for the next Katherine Dean.”
Reach Brad Schmitt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.