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Tim Balz: Student & Freedom Chairs Founder

Tim Balz caught the engineering and entrepreneurial bug as a student at Plainfield (Indiana) High School, where he saw a student in a manual wheel chair struggling to maneuver between classes. He decided to do something to help. He traded his moped for a broken electric wheelchair, fixed it up, and gave it to the student. That was the beginning of Freedom Chairs, the nonprofit that Balz founded, and an engineering pathway that would lead to recognition as a champion of innovation.

Balz, a three-letter athlete, had a less-than-stellar academic track record. But his industrial technology teacher saw a spark, convinced him to quit sports and help start the school’s first robotics team. “That was the best decision of my life, without a doubt,” Balz recalls. “It makes me realize how close I was to not doing what I’m doing now. And I love what I’m doing.” 

As an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Balz kept Freedom Chairs going during breaks, dipping into his college money and enlisting classmates to help – even teaching them how to use power tools. The nonprofit has refurbished and given away 130 motorized wheelchairs around Indiana, the U.S., and even internationally.

During an internship with Intel, he used his expertise to develop the Connected Wheelchair, a smart wheelchair endorsed by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking – with whom Intel researchers were working to create a system to give him a voice. As a student intern at Rose-Hulman Ventures, he helped assemble a high-tech motorized wheelchair for wounded U.S. soldiers and other clients.

Such efforts have won Balz multiple awards, including a 2016 TechPoint Mira Rising Star award. He also was recognized at the 2014 Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, and received the 2012 Hall of Fame Award from the American Red Cross of Greater Indianapolis, the 2012 Power of Children Award from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and the Indiana Pacers’ Indiana Heroes Award.

Balz hasn’t slowed down. He was on a panel at the American Society for Engineering Education’s 2017 annual conference in Columbus, Ohio in late June, entitled “Finding a Passion and Making It Happen,” about Rose-Hulman’s new program promoting entrepreneurship, making, and innovation through hands-on projects that benefit society. Like Freedom Chairs.

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