Bed helps Hawking live dream

stephen-hawking-zero-gravity

Author(s) ALAN WECHSLER Business writer Date: April 27, 2007 Section: Business

HOOSICK FALLS – Other than being the same age, John Wilkinson never had much in common with world-famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. Until now. Wilkinson is chairman of WCW Inc., a Hoosick Falls company that makes high-tech, air-filled mattresses under the brand Natural Form. Hawking, author of “A Brief History of Time,” took his first zero-gravity flight six miles above the Earth on Thursday.

Where the two 65-year-olds converge is the bed Hawking lay on – and floated over – during his afternoon flight. WCW custom-built the platform for Hawking, who uses a wheelchair, to ensure his delicate frame was not injured by the g- forces experienced while flying above Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

For Hawking, who has spent his life theorizing about the universe, it was a chance to experience a lifelong dream. “As you can imagine, I’m very excit ed,” Hawking told the Associated Press before boarding the plane. “I have been wheelchair-bound for almost four decades. The chance to float free in zero-g will be wonderful.” For Wilkinson, contributing to Hawking’s journey was an opportunity too good to pass up. “It is, for us, a major marketing opportunity,” he said. WCW first heard of the project about two months ago from Zero Gravity Corp., a company that takes paying customers on free-fall joy rides inside the belly of a modified Boeing 727.

For about $3,500, passengers are able to experience the weightlessness of outer space as the plane rises and falls on a parabolic flight from 34,000 to 24,000 feet and back again. The technique was first used to train astronauts. Zero Gravity had agreed to take Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge in England, on a flight in Florida.

Hawking, who has done groundbreaking work on black holes and the origins of the universe, suffers from the paralyzing disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and communicates through a speech synthesizer using tiny movements in his face. WCW was contacted because Hawking’s physicians were worried about what the g-forces might do to him.

They wanted Hawking to be able to lie on a mattress that would diffuse the forces during the flight. WCW’s mattresses, which start around $2,000, use a variety of air bladders filled with foam and a patented valve system. The bladders, or “cells,” constantly let air in or out to create an ideal amount of pressure for the person. The technology is especially useful for the bedridden, who are at risk of bedsores caused by pressure points on traditional mattresses. WCW’s mattresses have been used by the late actor Christopher Reeve and by Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine who uses a wheelchair.

Wilkinson, a native of Bennington, Vt., is a mechanical engineer. He got the idea for an air-based mattress system in 1981 and soon launched HealthFlex Inc. and the product Pressure Guard. Albany Medical Center was one of the business’s first major customers.

Wilkinson sold that company in 1992, but began making new mattresses through WCW three years later. Today, WCW employs his wife, Jean, two sons and a daughter – and nearly 200 others. Manufacturing takes place in Hoosick Falls, a former mill town only a few miles from the Vermont border. Wilkinson declined to release sales figures, but said WCW has been growing about 40 percent a year for the past five years. It just took a first step into retail with a store in Raleigh, N.C. Certainly, there’s a lot of money in the mattress market. Select Comfort Corp. of Minneapolis, maker of the air-based Sleep Number beds, reported sales of $800 million in 2006, according to the financial Web site http://www.hoovers.com. In comparison, Sealy Corp., the country’s No. 1 seller of bed products, has annual sales of about $1.6 billion. Wilkinson said his company expects to double the number of people it employs in three years. “We have some major contracts coming,” he said. Alan Wechsler can be reached at 454-5469 or by e-mail at awechsler@timesunion.com.

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