Jeff Weber spotted a design rarity: The market opportunity is massive, and the products out there are terrible.
When Jeff Weber suffered an injury to his left foot five years ago, he was given a set of standard crutches from the hospital. But the crutches were uncomfortable and seemed to only add ergonomic insult to the original injury: Weber's hands chaffed and his wrists ached because of poorly designed, badly placed grips. "All in all, it was a pretty awful experience," he recalls.
Weber is a seating designer by trade, and apprenticed to Bill Stumpf, a legendary pioneer of ergonomic design and co-creator of the famed Aeron chair for Herman Miller; later, the two created the Aeron's heir, the Embody. It's no surprise that Weber set his sights on crutches, which account for $US320 million annual sales on 10 million units in the US alone.
He started working out sketches and eventually took them back to his Minneapolis studio to create prototypes. "It was just an experiment, an exploration," he explains. But aside from a few high-end examples, Weber couldn't find anyone who had redone the standard crutch that was both well-designed and affordable to the masses.
It wouldn't be the first time the medical products industry has gotten a design face-lift. During World War II, Ray and Charles Eames designed leg splints and stretchers using their new process of moulding plywood. For years there wasn't much incentive for institutions to upgrade equipment, such as wheelchairs, and patients basically made do with what they were given. But recently there's been some renewed interest in the industry. For example, in just the last year, OXO, known for its kitchen gadgets with ergonomic grips, redesigned the common syringe.
Weber's Mobilegs crutches look like they'd be equally at home being sold at a hospital supply or a sporting goods shop. Available starting this winter, they're designed with ergonomic grips that are adjustable and are angled to fit where your hands would fall naturally. It's offered as two versions; the "Universal" costs $US59.99 and has the basic ergonomic redesign that mitigates the pressure points. The tricked-out "Ultra" at $US89.99 has the added proprietary "breathable" membrane for the shock-absorbed arm support—technology Weber borrowed from his work on the Aeron - and contains recyclable materials and longer-lasting feet. Both use 42 per cent less aluminium than the standard crutches now available.
Weber, 46, says the point is to make something that people want to use. "We hope when they see it, they'll look at it more like a piece of athletic equipment than sort of medical device," he says, the latter which can have a negative connotation. In fact, he says some seniors refuse to use mobility aids because they're ugly, even if they need them. "Everything we're doing at Mobi we hope will instil dignity."
Weber figures that by capturing just a tiny fraction of the market, he can quickly create a company doing $US10,000,000 a year in revenue. And armed with $US800,000 in angel investments, Weber plans to turn his new company, Mobi, into a full-on mobility startup: Look for a cane, walker and wheelchair under the Mobi brand later this year.
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