My father was a physician and I accompanied him on his rounds. So I’ve had an interest in the medical field and helping people all my life. I majored in Marketing and English in college and started working at global medical device leader Medtronic, as a writer. There, I worked my way up to being a senior product marketing manager and was involved in launching three major products.
After Medtronic, I joined a non-profit, Magic Arms, as its executive director and helped create devices to assist children affected by arthrogryposis, an orphan medical condition, use their arms. This is where I learned about assistive technology and its potential to help thousands of people who live with limb weaknesses that restrict their ability to live independently.
Why did you launch Abilitech Medical? What’s the backstory?
At Magic Arms, I grew passionate about helping people who had upper-arm weakness, which limited their ability to live independently. I still remember the look of delight on one child’s face as he moved his arm on his own, for the very first time, with the help of the Magic Arms device which aided the movement. His parents were similarly awestruck. It was such a moving experience and one that introduced me to this problem, which thousands of Americans live with daily.
During my tenure at Magic Arms, I received many emails and voicemails from people asking if our device could help them or someone they love who had multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, ALS, or a spinal cord injury — but we were focused on pediatric orphan conditions and had a very limited budget. We simply didn’t have the resources to develop and scale the technology to help adults.
I realized that my background in MedTech as a senior product manager at Medtronic, coupled with my experience at Magic Arms could be brought together to start a new company focused on transforming lives — so I launched Abilitech Medical.
What’s unique about your solution/product?
More than a million people in the U.S. rely on others to complete simple tasks such as eating, drinking, brushing teeth, and opening doors, due to poor neuromuscular function. The Abilitech™ Assist augments compromised upper extremity function to provide more independent living. Our device is unique because it facilitates independent control of the arms by assisting both the shoulder and the elbow to enable a greater range of motion for users that have minimal strength. Software customizes the spring tension to adjust for the lifting of objects, such as a fork, phone, or water bottle and supports items that weigh up to 12 ounces.
The Assist brings life-changing benefits and may have a physical, social, and economic impact. Our device will enable many to complete activities of daily living to live more independently. We expect to have an important social/emotional impact on the people we serve, by increasing the ability to participate in social opportunities and more fully engage with others. For many, we will have economic benefits because it decreases the reliance on personal care attendants and may provide the opportunity to live independently and avoid the costs of a skilled nursing facility.
Personal care costs average $28,000 per year and assisted living costs can cost up to $250,000 per year for a highly disabled patient. For some patients, they may even be able to return to work or stay in the workforce longer with the help of Abilitech Assist.
What are some of the challenges you faced building the company?
Designing and testing a solution to meet such a widespread need within a highly diverse population is not easy. This is not a device you can test in an animal lab and simulate different etiologies with varying levels of progressive degeneration — likely why no other company has succeeded in filling this market need. A successful solution must be safe, user-friendly, lightweight, and work with patient strength. It’s been quite an engineering challenge to work with, and not override patient function, because we don’t want patients to become dependent on the device and further atrophy. Multiple prototypes, bench testing, and designs were developed to determine how to best create one device that can serve all patients.
And, unfortunately, it’s no secret: Fundraising for women is difficult. It’s important to acknowledge the challenging dynamics for women, strategize and make a plan. Investor groups like Astia Angels, Springboard Enterprises, and the Sophia Fund have been very helpful. One important trick I’ve been taught is how to recognize the implicit bias in questions. Women are more likely to be asked limiting questions that can lead the discussion in a different direction, as opposed to being asked a promotional question that provides the opportunity to showcase potential. That said, I’m proud to share that I’ve raised $12 million to date and plan to raise $18 million this spring to support the growth of Abilitech and address a $20 billion market opportunity.
Would you like to share some milestones?
In 2018, we developed five clinical partnerships and received grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (Phase II Grant) and from the Minnesota Spinal Cord Injury Association. We completed the first in-human pre-clinical evaluations with four patient populations.
In 2019, Abilitech was recognized as a Top 20 Healthcare Startup by JP Morgan in Flyover Territory, one of the Top 10 Medical Device Startups by MedTech Outlook, and one of 20 Medical Device Startups You Need to Know by MassDevice. We formed our partnership with the Texas Medical Center Accelerator Program (TMCx). We also won the two top MedTech recognitions in our home state of Minnesota: the MN Cup and the TEKNE Award for MedTech innovation.
In 2020, we received FDA registration for our first product, the Assist and have rounded out our team to support a successful launch and growth.
When did you meet Barbara?
I met Barbara at the Boston RESI conference in 2019. While she is active in many different funds that support women, at this meeting she represented Astia Angels, one of the largest women-led angel groups.
Since then, we’ve had dinner in Boston at a top restaurant with a women chef and again in San Francisco, with an incredible group of women. She has done an excellent job of surrounding herself with strong women leaders. It’s no surprise that she reflects the power of those she works with and has chosen to support. Barbara is such an interesting person and her passion is contagious.
What impact did she have on your business? Feel free to share some examples.
Barbara has introduced me to an amazing network of investors and other women CEOs. I presented at Astia Angels 20th Anniversary event in San Francisco and met many other Astia portfolio company leaders. There is exponential energy and momentum that takes place when so many leaders gather and the energy was incredible.
In my career, I’ve learned the difference between mentors and sponsors. While both are important, the follow-through of a sponsor can be even more helpful. Barbara has an amazing commitment to act on her convictions and supports women both financially and by making introductions to others who can invest. She walks the talk and commands well-deserved respect for her actions.
What message do you have for Barbara?
You have great passion and purpose and it’s contagious. I am grateful for your many years of work to help advance women leaders. We’ve made great progress, there is more work to be done, but I remain optimistic because of leaders like you. Thank you.
Originally published at https://www.impactseat.com on December 7, 2020.