A mission to “create medical devices to solve problems”

A Minnesota entrepreneur uses her medtech experience to help people with upper limb weakness use their arms.

Happy Thursday readers,

My favorite thing about speaking to Midwest entrepreneurs is that I learn something new from them every day, even on topics for which I thought I had pretty decent knowledge. I recently spoke with Angie Conley, a Minnesota businessperson in the medtech field, about using technology to serve people with disabilities.

She offered a piece of information that gave me real pause because I had no idea this was true: There are well-known and widely used supportive devices, such as wheelchairs, to help people with lower-body mobility problems, but very few solutions exist to help people without full use of their upper limbs gain mobility. That knowledge set Conley on a mission to help this underserved population with her Minneapolis-based startup, Abilitech.

Conley previously worked at Medtronic, which gave her “the background, insights, and tools to be able to create medical devices to solve problems,” she said. Conley then worked for a nonprofit that helped children with rare arm conditions get outfitted with 3D-printed exoskeletons to let them use their arms. But she noticed that after a few days or weeks, many of the kids no longer wore their medical devices because they caused unintended consequences such as making patients too hot or uncomfortable, or causing the patient’s arms to float.

“It really wasn’t addressing the patient needs or the human factors… The human factors were insensitive,” she said. That motivated her to devise better assistive devices for people with disabilities that cause upper-limb weakness and limited use, such as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, or stroke.

Conley founded Abilitech in 2016, and the company is developing the first in-home, wearable device to provide support and assistance to both the elbow and shoulder to restore patients’ upper arm mobility. Springs and motors are at the heart of the device: Patients control the movement of their arms, and springs at the elbow and shoulder support the user’s strength. Software customizes the spring tension and automatically adjusts to account for the different weights of objects that users grab – forks, cell phones, etc. – that weigh up to 12 ounces.

“Abilitech is playing an important role in solving an unmet need that will affect over a million people in the U.S.,” Conley said, adding that the products have a threefold impact on patients. “We have a physical impact: helping people eat, drink, brush their teeth, and use a computer. We have a social/emotional impact: helping people help themselves and fully participate in their family and community and workplace. And we have an economic impact: helping offset certain costs of care and helping people age in place in their home longer instead of going to a nursing home.” Also on the economic side, the devices allow people to remain in the workforce.

Conley formed a two-person team in January 2017, and the business has grown to four employees with several contractors. The company won the MN Cup emerging entrepreneur competition in the fall. It completed the latest fundraising round in March, “yet it does feel inappropriate to make a broad, exciting announcement right now amid the turmoil in the world” with the pandemic, she said. The funding was supposed to last 10 months, but the new goal is to make it last 18 months to navigate what appears to be an impending economic downturn.

Abilitech is still poised to bring the device to market this summer. However, the pandemic is also causing non-financial challenges such as difficulty accessing patients and clinicians for clinical studies. The pandemic will also impact sales, distribution, and the ability to manufacture right now. “The good news for Abilitech is… we have the ability to be nimble and recalibrate some of our planned activities to appropriately address the new environment we’re in… We’re trying to adjust our strategy to meet patient needs and weather the financial crisis,” Conley said.

The company also focuses on bringing diverse voices to the table. “Financially, the diverse workforces and boards of directors perform better. It’s my belief that in getting many different perspectives to look at a problem, you are positioned best to create a solution,” she said.

One of Abilitech’s collaborators has a C4 spinal cord injury that caused him to be quadriplegic. He has a background in industrial engineering and meets with the Abilitech team at least once a week for product development. He helps to keep the “customer focus front and center… He has helped not only to connect us with certain communities, but filter how we’re looking at things through a patient and user perspective,” Conley said.

Conley notes the need to improve other groups’ representation in tech, namely women. Previously, she had been on a medical product engineering team and women were scarce. She sees improvements occurring, and in some cases younger generations are leading the charge. “I have a soft spot for women in tech, of course… I am excited to see and meet so many young women who are great contributors and are changing the world as we know it right now,” she said.

Do you know of other Midwest tech businesses creating solutions for people with disabilities? Let me know so I can highlight them in a future newsletter. Email katie@centered.tech or connect on Twitter @centereddottech to share ideas.

Other stories we’re watching:

  • Madison, Wisconsin-based Maydm, which provides girls and youth of color with skill-based technology sector training, is transitioning its in-person sessions and camps into free, online tutorials during the pandemic. (Spectrum News 1)
  • Indianapolis-based tech networking platform Powderkeg is providing free early access to its new community-powered job matching tool to help people who are out of work because of the pandemic find tech jobs. (WISH-TV)
  • The Minnesota High Technology Association is rebranding and now will be called Minnesota Technology Association, or MnTech. The loss of “High” in the name is intended to reflect widespread computer and networking technology adoption across industries. (Star Tribune)
  • A Bloomington, Illinois, tech firm is suing a former manager on seven counts, including violating trade secret laws. Mavidea Technology Group, a web design and internet marketing business, alleges the former employee took proprietary information from the company’s client list when his scheme to buy the business failed. (The Pantagraph)

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