Often the best teams don’t form as a result of careful planning: they synthesize when the right people work on the right project at the right time. Such is the story of Vail Horton and the Keen Mobility E-Team.
Born without legs, Horton learned determination and perseverance at a young age. At four he pleaded with his parents for prosthetic legs, and got his wish when a team of biomedical engineers at the Rusk Institute of New York University designed a pair of custom titanium legs for use with ordinary wooden crutches.
While glad to be free of a wheelchair, over the years the jolting of the crutches caused tremendous pain in Horton’s back, shoulders, and arms. In college he was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in his shoulders, and when the incessant pain became severe his doctors prescribed a wheelchair. Horton refused; he had experienced an independent lifestyle, and going back to a wheelchair wasn’t an option.
One day, Horton, then a business student at the University of Portland, walked into the engineering department and asked if someone could build him a crutch with a shock absorber. A professor who happened to be in her office at the time spoke with him about it. “A few days later,” said Horton, “three engineering students called me and said, ‘We’ve been assigned to build your crutch for our senior year project.’ I said, ‘Oh, cool’.”
Just like that, the team was formed.
The group was soon accepted into UP’s E-Scholar program, in which students form teams and pursue a business venture funded partly by the university and partly by themselves. Horton and his team began a venture based around a new, improved crutch—one that wouldn’t be detrimental to long-term users.
But the team wasn’t complete. Horton soon realized they needed more information about how the crutch would affect the human body, and took steps to add a life sciences major to the ranks. Horton, the three engineers and the life sciences major met once a week over the course of their senior year and, aided by NCIIA Advanced E-Team funding, eventually came up with a product: the Keen Krutch. The improved crutch featured underarm cushioning that conformed to the curvature of the body; a contour shape to redistribute pressure; adjustable, mobile handgrips to prevent carpal tunnel; shock absorbers, and a pivoting ankle joint for increased mobility.
Then everyone graduated. Horton decided to try and commercialize the Keen Krutch, but the engineers didn’t join him. Says Horton, “They didn’t see entrepreneurship in the same light as myself. I gave them every opportunity to stay and form part of the company, but I didn’t have the resources to offer and they weren’t willing to accept the risk associated with running a startup.”
Horton decided to call on an old friend and former roommate, Jerry Carleton. Carleton had already accepted a job in northern California, but jumped at the chance to join Horton. Says Carleton, “Just knowing Vail, I was already caught up in the vision and I knew he was going to take the company as far as it could go. I knew he was the kind of guy that would never say die—that he was putting his mind to this company and was going to make it a huge success. So when the moment came and I was sitting there at lunch and he offered me the job, I didn’t hesitate.”
Together the two founded a small startup company, Keen Mobility. Five years and a grueling, exhausting, and ultimately rewarding startup process later, the company is on its feet and growing rapidly. Alongside the Keen Krutch, the company manufactures a wide array of technologically advanced, safe ambulatory aids and other progressive products that allow the disabled greater mobility, safety and independence.
Anyone that has had an injury requiring crutches knows they are uncomfortable to use over a long period of time. Extended pressure to the upper extremities can cause chronic shoulder pain, arthritic conditions, discomfort, muscle weakness and fatigue, as well as injuries to underarm arteries. For some, these health problems become so severe that they must use a wheelchair.
This E-Team developed the Keen Krutch, a more comfortable, more versatile crutch that alleviates the problems associated with traditional crutches and provides increased mobility. The Keen Krutch features underarm cushioning that conforms to the curvature of the body; a contour shape to redistribute pressure; adjustable, mobile handgrips to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome; shock absorbers; and a pivoting ankle joint for increased mobility.
The idea for the Keen Krutch was originated by Vail Horton, who was born without legs and has used crutches from an early age. After graduating from the University of Portland, Horton and his former roommate Jerry Carleton co-founded Keen Mobility, an assistive technology company built around the crutch. Today the company is thriving and growing rapidly, having reached over $2 million in cumulative sales with $1.2 million in 2005. In addition to the Keen Krutch, the company manufactures an array of technologically advanced, safe ambulatory aids and other progressive products that allow people with disabilities greater mobility, safety, and independence.