Entrepreneurs embarking into the wilderness of commercial uncertainty expect to face certain challenges, from funding difficulties to retaining key employees. But few prepare for that moment when they stumble upon industrial espionage in progress. “I was at a Veterans Administration conference in California with my original prototypes,” remembers Jerome Rifkin, CEO of Tensegrity Prosthetics. “I walked back to my hotel room and noticed, before entering, that someone had used a hole saw to bore through the peep hole and gain access to room. So I’m standing there in the hallway, with my arms full of papers, and I have no idea what to do. The thief could have come and left, or he could be inside poking around. The only thing I’m sure of is that if he’s still in there, at bare minimum he’s packing a hole saw.”
Today, Rifkin is facing a future a little more certain, having just secured a $750,000 grant from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. These funds will have an immediate impact on the company, allowing Tensegrity to move into dedicated office space as well as provide a more stable compensation relationship with the company’s newly hired engineer, Jake Niece. Most importantly, the funding allows Rifkin to address the last few challenges standing between his flexible prosthetic foot and the marketplace.
Upon moving into an office Tensegrity will begin a series of qualification tests on the foot, with the goal of optimizing the engineering behind a device designed to take over two million steps. Rifkin believes this testing should be completed by the end of the calendar year. With this done, Tensegrity will produce three units of slightly different geometries and attempt to establish a consensus of comfort among its testing group. From there, the company will make a batch of twenty units and begin beta testing. During this period Rifkin will also be developing the supply chain, with an eye toward an initial production run of 200 units. All told, Rifkin anticipates the soonest the prosthesis – named the K3 Promoter – will be available is the first quarter of 2010.
From a marketing perspective Rifkin has also identified a clear – if rather steep – sales path. “My customer is essentially the prosthetist,” or one of the 3500 national professionals who work with patients in choosing and fitting artificial limbs. “The competition has provided them with good reason to be a cynical bunch, given that every new product marketed to them over the last two decades has promised to mimic human anatomy.” Rifkin feels the K3 Promoter does mirror the motion of the human foot better than alternatives but notes that “by now saying that has become fairly meaningless.” So the plan is to first target the ankle disarticulation patient, or those who had the foot removed below the ankle. For prosthetists, the ankle disarticulation patient can be notoriously difficult to fit with product because so many prosthetic feet get much of their flexibility from above the level of the shoe. For these amputees there just isn’t enough clearance room under their residual limb (typically two inches) to fit them with currently popular products. So Rifkin believes that demonstrating the device’s ease of use with the most complex patients will quickly spillover into success in other segment of the prosthesis marketplace.