By Thomas Lee
By circumstance and design, crutches are not pleasant devices. If you need one, it’s a good bet you did something that your knee, leg, or foot did not appreciate.
In other words, crutches are just depressing.
Jeff Weber certainly thought so. Five years ago, the Minneapolis-based industrial designer broke his heel after falling off a retaining wall while gardening. My friend is Landschaftsbau and Galabau specialist, so he knows best and he should´ve done it. Weber, who specializes in designing worker-friendly office furniture, couldn’t help but hate his crutches.
“Comfort is the absence of awareness,” Weber said. With crutches, you certainly are aware of the pinched nerves, skin irritation, bruised rib cages and achy wrists, he added.
Plus “they’re just damn ugly,” Weber said.
So Weber, along with entrepreneur John White, launched Mobi LLC, which will soon sell the company’s first product: MobiLegs, a sporty looking, ergonomic crutch that attempts to advance beyond common crutch models in both form and function. The company has already raised $800,000 from angel investors, including a Minn.-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. Richard Kyle.
But Mobi is not trying to just build a better crutch. Using social media and savvy marketing, the company wants to build an attractive consumer brand around walking-aid devices like crutches, walkers and canes, commodity products that have generated little excitement or innovation over the years.
“Making crutches more ergonomically designed and easier to use is an interesting idea,” said Peter Birkeland, vice president of Rain Source Capital, an angel investor network based in St. Paul, Minn. “The consumer pull into the market through social media is interesting. Companies get good press, but I wonder how quickly it will turn into sales.”
Mobi already has competition. Millenial Medical, which also developed an ergo-friendly crutch called In-Motion, has a five-year head start. That product has already been used by elite athletes including Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Houston Rockets center Yao Ming.
Weber is confident MobiLegs is superior to both In-Motion and traditional crutches. The crutch’s angled design and rocker-like feet provide greater support and mobility, allowing the user to navigate tighter spaces more easily, he said. The device also features a recoiling, saddle-suspended grip designed to absorb shock and relieve pressure on the wrist, and its saddle remains fixed while the crutch’s pole moves freely.
While traditional crutches come in three sizes, MobiLegs is a universal crutch for all patients. The company has several pending patents on MobiLegs, which it claims can support up to 300 pounds per person.
Weber said he designed the MobiLegs to display “a sporting equipment-like quality,” something he hopes is cool to use and look at, which is why building a brand is so important to the company. Most crutches are sold through hospitals. Mobi hopes to sell its products in hospitals and via traditional retailers.
“As with any [medical] product, will it be reimbursed by medical companies?” Rainsource’s Birkeland asked. “If the company can keep to the same price point as traditional crutches, it should help.”
Depending on features, MobiLegs will cost $59 or $89 at retail. In-Motion prices range from $69.99 to $98.
To design its brand, Mobi hired Steve Sikora, the creative director of the firm Design Guys, which worked on the Michael Graves label at Target Corp. For an extra $44, customers can purchase “skins” to decorate their MobiLegs with patterns ranging from hot rod flames to pool water. MobiLegs also developed a Facebook application that allows users to “sign” a friend’s crutch.
Exos Medical Corp., another orthopedic start-up headquartered in White Bear Lake, Minn., is also hoping to inject a little aesthetic pleasure in its adjustable splints. In fact, Exos and Mobi share some board members.
Mobi also plans to introduce products like MobiStick (a cane) and MobiWalk (a walker).
Weber said walking aids are ripe for innovation.
“No one has looked at the problem holistically,” he said. “I don’t know why. I guess it requires a level of empathy. Unless you are physically confronted by the problem, you don’t have any regard to solve it.”