How Bill Nordt, M.D., Braced Himself for Success By Cama McNamara
How many first-time inventors would take on a company like Dr. Scholl’s, single handedly, having no legal background or knowledge of the patent system, with an unproven product? The fact that Bill Nordt, M.D., did that and more gives an idea of the scope of Nordt’s passion for his profession as an orthopedic surgeon, as well as his dedication to improving the lives of people who suffer from orthopedic problems.
Nordt holds 35 patents, all related to either preventing patients from having surgery or improving surgical techniques. He has designed surgical instruments, as well as implantable and external devices that restore the forces and pressures of the joints in the human body—a skill that came somewhat naturally to the physician, whose parents owned a precision machine shop in New Jersey.
Growing up in the family business, Nordt shadowed tool and die makers responsible for figuring out solutions to mechanical problems. He learned not only how to logically solve mechanical problems, but also became adept at using his hands in doing so. Over the years, as he learned to appreciate the value of hard work and discipline—traits his parents emphasized—Nordt also realized that in the blue-collar town where he grew up, doctors, lawyers and dentists were considered the epitome of success. When it came time for college, Nordt determined that medical school was his best option.
During his training, Nordt’s peers labeled him as the “orthopedic type,” but it wasn’t until he was exposed to a variety of subspecialties that Nordt discovered for himself that he was most comfortable within the parameters of orthopedic surgery. Although industrial machinery and orthopedics may not, at first, seem to have much in common, Nordt was able to apply many of the same principles and problem-solving skills he learned in the machine shop to restoring the biomechanics of the human body.
“One of the exciting things about medicine,” he says, “is when you can develop new solutions to old problems. Orthopedic surgeons are constantly faced with solving biological and mechanical problems. After many years of training and study, you finally get to the edge of what is known and what is theoretical. That is the point where discoveries are made, and it becomes very exciting. The harder I look at a patient’s problem, the more likely I am to find a solution. My job is a high-rewards subspecialty because I often see immediate results: sometimes it’s in a post-operative x-ray; others it’s an athlete back on the field within weeks. I love my work.”
Nordt went on to specialize in joint reconstructive surgery and replacement, but always maintained the importance of non-surgical treatment of many musculoskeletal disorders. Common overuse syndromes such as plantar fasciitis, carpal tunnel, bursitis of the shoulder, shin splints, generic knee pain, low back pain and tennis elbow—that he saw every day—were very amenable to conservative treatment programs. What was missing, he believed, was the right device.
Nordt’s first patent was on a device to alleviate the symptoms associated with plantar faciitis, one of the most common causes of heel pain. The pain results from inflammation of the plantar fascia, tissue that runs across the bottom of the foot and connects the heel to the toes. During laboratory experiments in 1994, Nordt’s analysis of foot mechanics resulted in his first product—a simple device that increased plantar fascia tension. In getting the product to market, however, he learned a few things through the school of hard knocks that weren’t taught in medical school.
Uncertain of what to call his new invention, a friend suggested “DynaSlipper.” “Anything with ‘dyna’ in the name sells,” his friend told him. DynaSlipper it was.
With complete confidence that his device was “the next big thing,” Nordt, with no knowledge of product development, undertook the manufacturing and distribution of the DynaSlipper on his own. After substantial investments of time and money, Nordt managed to get DynaSlipper to market, only to receive a letter soon after from attorneys at Dr. Scholl’s® that he was being cited for trademark and copyright infringement. Although his product was unique, the name DynaSlipper, it seemed, was too close to the name of a product marketed by Dr. Scholl’s.
Rather than changing the name or paying an attorney, Nordt fought the company himself. “Their attorney was the former head of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and I had no legal background,” Nordt says. “We were supposed to present a legal brief producing the background of our inventions. Mine was 20 pages and ‘replete with errors,’ to quote the judge; theirs could fill a room.”
At that point, Nordt said he realized that he needed an 800-pound gorilla on his side. “Big companies,” he says, “have unlimited resources to protect their territory.”
Needless to say, Nordt lost the case and, in retrospect, wishes he had made the name change when he first received the letter. Nordt speaks from experience when he says, “The moral of the story is: Get a distribution partner.”
Nordt went on to successfully market the renamed OrthoSlipper, as well as a device to treat shin splints, the Rocket Orthotic, but after dealing with the conflicts associated with getting a product to market while simultaneously maintaining his practice, Nordt decided to take his next idea—a knee brace—in another direction.
Call In the Experts
“I knew I needed engineering expertise, designers, prototypes and a manufacturer,” he says. Through conversations with those in the medical device industry, in 2002, Nordt was introduced to Louis Foreman, CEO of product development firm Enventys. The two entered into a collaborative agreement to design and develop a series of braces.
Nordt had a novel idea for a new category of braces. “There have been a variety of knee braces on the market,” Nordt explains, “that work through many factors, including structure and fit. Most have lower-level structural features and a minimum of support. Much of the technology and materials, at the time, were antiquated. My concept was to use a framework of elastic material to provide support and return kinetic energy to the knee.”
Although the initial prototype was developed quickly, it took a couple of years to get a solid working prototype. This included weekend meetings in hotels and restaurants between Virginia, where Nordt lived, and Urbana, Ill., where Charlotte, N.C.-based Enventys had engineering departments.
At the same time the team was working on the knee brace, they began to develop other overuse-symptom devices. “With one product, it’s hard to make an impact (on the market),” Nordt says. “With a group of products, you have more impact potential, but it also takes more time, finances and resources to get them there.”
Nordt acknowledges that he was inspired by the team effort. “When you’re working with a group of extremely talented engineers, you can let your imagination fly,” Nordt says. “There are always design features that can improve a product. I was in pursuit of the perfect brace. We would get together and make changes in the products, and say ‘if you can do this, you can do that,’ and then we would be back to the drawing board. Of course, while we were developing these products, the legal team was working on patents to protect them, which means more time and resources.”
The escalating process of product development proved to be a learning experience for Nordt, who says he eventually arrived at a moment in which he had to regroup, rethink and research his options. “I’m first and foremost a doctor,” he says, “not a product developer. There were times I had to ask myself, ‘Do I keep going? Another month? Another dollar?’ Although you might hope to have grandiose success, at some point you have to face reality.”
Ultimately, Nordt realized that he had to stay focused on getting as direct a line as possible on the path to a marketable device. After evaluating each product in the pipeline, it was determined that the knee brace had the greatest likelihood of success.
In the final phase of product development, engineers developed a structurally sound, lightweight, kinetic knee brace that, upon movement, returns energy to the knee. An important element was the development of the silicon-based elastomer that the low-profile, web-like frame, which grips the knee, is composed. This material exerts tension, returning energy to the knee.
The Road Well Traveled
With a viable product, Nordt and Foreman zeroed in on distribution partners and participated in what Nordt refers to a “traveling road show.” Nordt says that the big black hole in product development is distribution, explaining his plans to reach a licensing agreement with a brace company, rather than marketing the device on his own. “You can have the best product in the world, but unless you have a distribution vehicle, it’s really difficult (to get it to market), particularly if you have only one product.
“If you look at the website for the USPTO, you see thousands of great ideas that never made it to market,” Nordt continues. “You even see plenty of great brace ideas that didn’t make it. The trick is get a prominent share of the market, with the shortest path to penetration.”
That path included trying to convince some of the country’s largest medical companies that Nordt’s brace was a worthwhile investment. Although they generated interest, Nordt and Foreman failed to peak the level of interest necessary for a licensing agreement. The first hurdle: There were multiple products on the market to treat overuse. The second: “A lot of large companies don’t want to embrace new products, particularly if they are developed externally,” says Nordt. “Revolutionary ideas can be killed easily by a large company unwilling to take that risk.
“There is a little bit of luck involved in finding the right people in the right room at the right time,” Nordt continues. “Momentum stalls, and although you work hard to make something happen, you make mistakes along the way. Louis taught me a lot about boardroom negotiation.”
Nordt’s luck improved when he approached executives at DonJoy, the No. 1 brace manufacturer in the world. The company’s representatives were impressed at the quality of the product yet reluctant to take it on. Nordt was informed that if he would have the brace manufactured, the company would assess it for future development.
With that in mind, the Enventys team, along with members of the company’s Taiwan office, developed the tooling and manufacturing for the brace. After a series of trials and tribulations, the braces were shipped and test-marketed. Nordt devised a complicated distribution process that included an Internet-based company, one that specialized in big-box retailers, plus the test-market with DonJoy. Fortunately, during this crucial phase, DonJoy did well with the brace and entered into a licensing agreement. “DonJoy proved to be a superb licensing partner, not only taking extra steps to improve the product through manufacturing details, but also the sizing, packaging and distribution,” Nordt says about what became the DonJoy Reaction WEB Knee Brace. “They are an incredible company and brought the brace up to the highest standard.”
Bracing for Change
Noting that millions of people have overuse problems, particularly baby boomers, Nordt is currently working on multiple braces—all in various stages of prototype development. Nordt says this aging generation has little tolerance for disability or pain. “Boomers want to stay as pain-free and active as possible as they grow older,” he notes, “and they are looking for performance-enhancing devices, such as the knee brace, to make their lives easier.”
Nordt has also turned his attention to understanding how to teach people activities and exercises that reduce forces on their joints, thereby increasing the joint’s longevity; for example, how to carry their weight to improve the longevity of the knee. “I really want my patients to understand how to diminish pain and improve mobility without surgery,” he emphasizes.
He is also in the process of finding partners to develop a pain control company. “The goal of orthopedics is to diminish pain and improve mobility,” Nordt says, “and I continue to bring players and resources together to make that happen—something like the Dr. Scholl’s of orthopedic pain syndromes.”
And the OrthoSlipper? The last of them went up in smoke in a recent bonfire. Nordt says it’s called “product senescence.”