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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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