Former world-class runner’s invention helps sufferers of plantar fasciitis
“I degraded to a point where I had plantar fasciitis in both feet so bad that I couldn’t even run, couldn’t walk without limping.”
BY JEREMY LOSAW
Plantar fasciitis took Jim Cooper from being a world-class distance runner to being unable to walk. Now both his toes and a career as an inventor are inclined upward.
Cooper was an All-American in track and field at the University of North Carolina, ran in three Olympic trials, and was an alternate for the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. His competitive career ended when he developed plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of tissue that connects the heel to the toes and causes a stabbing pain. Between 2 million and 3 million Americans are treated each year for it.
“I degraded to a point where I had plantar fasciitis in both feet so bad that I couldn’t even run, couldn’t walk without limping,” Cooper said.
He has launched a product called the Dorsiflex that helps relieve pain for sufferers of plantar fasciitis, and other foot and lower leg ailments.
Dorsiflex is a stretching device for the foot and lower leg that allows the foot to be stretched in three dimensions. It has a comfortable soft rubber pad on the base and a hinged toe bed. The toe bed adjusts from flat to a maximum incline of 55 degrees to provide a deep stretch for the foot.
A series of 20 fingers in the toe bed allow it to also be twisted laterally to give the foot a lateral incline during stretching for additional stretch options. Legs can be added underneath the base to raise the whole bed for an even deeper stretch.
All this adjustability allows the user a multitude of stretches that work the muscles and tendons in the foot simultaneously and effectively. Although the device is primarily for plantar fasciitis, it also works for Achilles tendinitis and other foot and lower leg issues.
Specialist couldn’t help
Plantar fasciitis dogged Cooper for more than 30 years. He ultimately went to a specialist in Atlanta who treated many runners.
“He did everything. Gave me the shot, gave me the orthotics, gave me the stretches to use, gave me the boot to sleep in, all the traditional efforts. They just weren’t working.”
With his background in business and engineering, Cooper is a problem solver.
His approach to the problem was both analytical and elegantly simple. He observed his foot position when it hurt the worst and noticed that it was when his toes were inclined upward, toward the front of his shin. He took some freestanding weights, placed them against a wall, put his toes on the weight and did a wall lean stretch with his toes now in an inclined position.
The results were miraculous.
“I felt stretching like I never felt before. So I started stretching like that … and I was getting better every day,” Cooper said.
Although carrying heavy weights around just for stretching was unwieldy, he made a prototype for himself out of wood and a door hinge that allowed him to stretch with his toes in the same upward-pointed position. It worked just as well as the weights. He eventually made a few more devices to share with friends and even filed a patent for the device.
Cooper was getting good feedback on the efficacy of the prototypes and attempted to start a business and sell them. However, the venture never got off the ground due to lack of funds, lack of skill in marketing, and a product that was not quite ready for prime time.
Dorsiflex was revived in 2012 when Cooper got a call from Steve Sims, a former customer of the device. Sims loved the Dorsiflex concept, had some ideas to improve it, and wanted to work with Cooper to get it into the marketplace.
They realized that no one was stretching the foot in three dimensions, so they added fingers to the foot bed to allow the toes to be angled laterally. The first version of this design used five fingers, which did the job but was very uncomfortable on the foot.
The corners of the fingers dug into the skin, so they increased the number of fingers to 20 and made a smoother transition. “That really was a huge leap forward in terms of comfort,” Cooper said.
With the toe bed figured out, they finished the design of an aluminum version of the device, patented the new functionality, and made a few hundred of them with a contract manufacturer to sell.
Dorsiflex was now in the marketplace and getting great reviews, but Cooper wanted the device to weigh less, be less expensive to manufacture, and have an iconic style.
He found a local design firm in Charlotte, Enventys Partners, and contracted with it for product development and marketing services. The product was completely redesigned to have a sleek, low profile with a rigidized plastic chassis and a comfortable, durable, overmolded foot pad with a smooth transition from the base to the footbed. The parts were optimized for mass production; more than 2 lbs. were removed from the original.
The new design was released on Kickstarter in Summer 2021 and raised $97,926 from 856 backers.
Delivery coming soon
Cooper is focusing on the manufacturing and marketing of Dorsiflex. He is working with an Asian factory for mass production of the device and expects to deliver the product in the fourth quarter of this year.
At least seven athletes at the Tokyo Olympic Games used first-generation versions of the device—including medal favorites in track and field events—and he is tuning up his digital assets and working with other select athletes to help raise the profile of the product.