The humble crutch just got a major upgrade.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean someone took a simple tool and made it worse by making it “smart” (we’re looking at you, Wifi Toaster). Instead, BetterWalk CEO Partha Unnava redesigned the most ubiquitous mobility assistance device known to man to be less of a pain to use.
In this instance, we mean “pain” literally. People have used everything from kitten cozies and enormous memory foam pads to make crutches more comfortable. The original model was designed 100 years ago, and although the function of crutches is vital, sometimes the pain from using them is worse than the original injury.
When he broke his ankle playing basketball, Unnava experienced this discomfort personally. As a biomedical engineering student at Georgia Tech, he was uniquely positioned to do something about it.
The concept is simple. Instead of placing the user’s weight on their wrists and underarms, the new design redistributes weight to the forearms, reducing muscle strain while improving stability. The mechanics of the device are so straightforward that even Unnava claims amazement that no one thought of it before. However, like rotary can openers and Velcro, once the world adopts the product, we’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.
The journey to building a better crutch wasn’t easy, though, and Unnava took several significant personal risks along the way. One of the first steps was to secure funding for the project. Unnava submitted the design to Zero To 510, an organization that helps fast track innovative medical devices to market. In the summer of 2013, he received enough seed funding to start the project.
Running a company is difficult enough on its own. Committing full energy to managing a startup while attending one of the most rigorous engineering schools in the country is almost impossible. Unnava had to make a choice. At the end of his third year, he dropped out of school and dedicated himself to BetterWalk full time.
“I had this feeling I was doing what I was supposed to do,” he said. “The funding lined up, the need was there, so in my mind it just made sense.”
Prior to the project, Unnava did not have experience with either fundraising or manufacturing. Everything he needed he had to learn on the go. We asked him how he managed to succeed against such odds. “One skillset I’ve had my whole life is the ability to make friends and build relationships, and that became the most useful skillset for me in my role as CEO,” he said. “Being able to meet investors and other people in the community and make friends took me a very long way.”
It took two and a half years and 12 iterations to finalize the design. It wasn’t enough to have the right structure; it also had to be manufactured and assembled at a cost close to a standard crutch. In their current form, the crutches are cost-neutral to hospital and doctors offices, so the transition to BetterWalk crutch will be painless.
Although the company is only three months from their initial launch, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The company has already partnered with several distribution partners and expects growth to be swift.
Unnava doesn’t intend to stop with the crutch. His goal is to address the “overlooked problems” in common medical devices. “Our focus is the mobility space, it’s something that speaks to me a lot,” he said. “We want to change existing products to improve patient experience and not charge more for it.”
Whatever risks the company may face in the future, Unnava is ready to take them on. “I don’t really believe in failure,” he told us. “I just see it as a postponement of success.”
All photos courtesy of Partha Unnava