Timing is often a critical component of successful ventures in life, and it couldn’t have been more so for the players in this story: the inventor, Howard Liles, his grandmother Ada Mae Smoot and future URise Products CEO Ken Paulus. All three came together in a fortuitous series of circumstances that led to the development of the URise StandUp Walker.
As senior mechanical engineering students at MIT in 2010, Howard Liles and his classmates were challenged with designing a device that would improve mobility. To gather information to complete their project, they talked to residents of nursing homes, where they heard again and again: “I want to maintain as much independence as possible.” One of the major challenges to maintaining independence was being able to sit and stand without help while getting in and out of a chair or bed, or using the bathroom.
In response to the comments they heard, Liles and his team envisioned the concept for a walker—the iXa—that also aided users in their struggle to stand or sit independently. At the end of the semester, Liles’ team assigned the stand-assist walker project to him, but caught up in the excitement of graduation, he quickly abandoned the idea. The project, however, was archived through MIT’s Technology Licensing Office.
The next fall, Liles enrolled at Georgia Tech, where he began studies on a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. That same year, his elderly but very active grandmother took a fall that required surgery. Liles was in the hospital room the first time Ada Mae tried to get out of bed. The soft mattress prevented her from pushing up, and the bed rail was no help, either. She even tried to pull herself up by grabbing the rolling IV pole.
As Liles watched his grandmother struggle to get out of bed, he remembered his senior project. What his grandmother really needed was the stand-assist walker.
Once back in class, Liles engaged the university’s Mobility Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center. He discussed his idea with engineering professor Stephen Sprigle, Ph.D., P.T., and the two began working on a prototype based on the original MIT design. It incorporated the features of a traditional walker with those necessary in a stand-assist device. The rickety apparatus had rough-hewn wooden handles stuck into the front legs of a traditional walker, combined with salvaged, curved rear legs, which would barely support the weight of a child. However, the device did feature the all-important 13-piece hinged joint, cobbled together with a variety of plastic and metal parts.
“The hinged joint makes it easy for users to propel themselves from a sitting to a standing position,” says Liles. “Once standing, the device locks securely into place for walking.”
During the development process, Liles says that he and Sprigle “had a series of fortunate breaks, including receiving a federal grant for the initial prototype” from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation. Liles and Sprigle were also fortunate to cross paths with Ken Paulus.
A Licensing Deal
At the time, Paulus was the executive vice president of business development for Edison Nation Medical. He and then-Edison Nation Medical President Bobby Grajewski were actively seeking technology through tech transfer offices, which serve as licensing agents for university-owned patents. “The average consumer doesn’t invent medical devices,” explains Paulus. After searching projects at MIT, he and Grajewski came across the IXA Walker, complete with sketches, CAD and a business plan.
The next step was a call to MIT, where they discovered the project had been transferred to Georgia Tech. After canvasing the university’s engineering department, Paulus and Grajewski were put in touch with Sprigle, who was more than willing to take the prototype to Edison Nation Medical in Charlotte, N.C., to demonstrate the invention. The Edison Nation team was so impressed with the stand-assist device, they immediately offered to pursue a licensing deal. “We knew the product would be a real game changer in the home health-care industry,” says Paulus.
Licensing deal sealed, Paulus needed to locate a manufacturer that also had the engineering ability to continue the product’s development. “We originally went to walker manufacturers,” says Paulus, “and they all said ‘yes,’ but they also wanted to position the product as a low-cost item, which we didn’t agree with for two reasons. First, we thought the stand-up walker could replace as many as five devices that could add up to thousands of dollars in a home, and second, the royalties would be too small and we wouldn’t make any money. Pricing and positioning in the market were extremely important.”
In July 2015, Paulus decided to leave Edison Nation Medical and pursue the stand-up walker on his own. “From the very first time I saw Howard’s thesis, I thought it was an extraordinary idea,” says Paulus. “The first time I saw the prototype, I was amazed. I knew it would fundamentally change the industry.”
Paulus formed a company, aptly named URise Products, recruited a business partner, Gary Kabot, purchased the licensing agreement from Edison Nation Medical and continued the process of designing a functional consumer-driven product. Through research, he discovered a manufacturing firm based in Charlotte with a factory in Goldston, N.C., that also had the required engineering capabilities. With input from the engineers and feedback from occupational and rehabilitation therapists and their patients, 11 different prototypes were designed before Paulus and Kabot were satisfied with the StandUp Walker’s performance.
The single biggest challenge was the hinge, which acts as a fulcrum and allows the device’s front legs on wheels to move forward as the stabilizing legs slide back. The hinges in the first prototypes couldn’t withstand much weight and bent when the user tried to push himself upright. “It worked fine in the Y shape for walking but was unreliable in the X shape for standing,” says Kabot.
“The alpha prototype was for showcase purposes only,” adds Paulus, revealing that when the walker debuted at a medical convention in Atlanta, each time it was demonstrated, he had to take it off the show floor and replace the hinge before the next person could try it. The engineering team solved that problem by designing a single-part hinge, which not only functioned better but was cheaper to produce.
Through product trials and consumer commentary, Paulus understood that to make the StandUp Walker as easy to use and effective as possible, the handles also needed alterations. The original wooden prototype handles were transformed into shepherd-like crooks, which worked fine for sitting but not for pulling oneself upright, before the team came up with the idea for the fourth-generation handles—an iteration of which is used on the current model. The handles feature an ergonomically designed Pistol Grip for walking and an extended, padded ball grip that the user can push down on to help thrust the body to a standing position. Paulus says the premium grip mechanism is extremely important for user satisfaction.
“The majority of falls happen in the middle of the night, with people trying to get out of bed. Their weight is off center, and as they try to push themselves up, they are either propelled sideways and fall forward, or they try to pull themselves up and fall backward. The ergonomics of the handles give the device leverage where you need it,” Paulus says, cautioning that upper body strength is required. “Users must have the strength to push themselves out of a chair or the bed.”
The ski-type rear legs, which extend as the user lowers himself into a seated position, also created problems. “They got caught on carpet and bumped into chair legs when users sat down,” says Paulus. The solution: a bullet-designed cap that eliminated drag issues and skirted around furniture legs.
The single greatest advantage of the URise StandUp Walker, according to Paulus, is its ability to take the place of as many as five products in a home: walkers, electric chair risers and extension bars on toilets, in more than one room. “Most products are static and do one or the other,” says Paulus, noting that the StandUp Walker is a great return on investment.
Although the StandUp Walker was designed with the elderly in mind, they are not the only potential users. Paulus says that injured athletes, those suffering from MS, and hip or knee replacement patients are candidates for the StandUp Walker.
Ready to Go
So far, Paulus and Kabot have invested one-half million dollars in the project. Although the StandUp Walker was going into a short production run (“in case something goes wrong”) in late March, customer feedback is still important. Trials are being conducted in Ohio, California, North Carolina and Florida.
“The therapists and patients who are using it love it,” says Liles. “They appreciate how simple and easy it is to use, while also providing support and mobility.”
As opposed to traditional walkers, which usually have a chrome finish, URise StandUp Walkers are available in three vibrant colors: cobalt, bright red and emerald green, not only to stand out but also to provide users with an element of fun. Paulus is currently negotiating with distributors to sell the product, which will retail for $299. He hopes to produce 2,000 units a month in the near future.
Paulus is also working with his team on upgrades and improvements. Although the current walker can withstand the weight of 400 pounds, a larger model is being developed for bariatric patients, as is a version more suited for outdoor use. A line of accessories, such as cup holders and trays, is also in the works.
To protect his IP, Paulus filed a non-provisional utility patent that has three independent claims. He also filed an international patent under the Patent Cooperation Treaty. The primary IP is on the hinge, he says, which has four different parts: an inner and outer case, a pin and a latch. The claims cover the arms, the grips and the ski-type legs. The patent is pending, and Paulus doesn’t know if he’ll have to file new patents on each independent claim.
Opportunities for Innovation
Another important element of timing, Paulus says that 20 years ago, the StandUp Walker may not have been as relevant as it is today. “Ten thousand people in the United States turn 65 each day,” he says. “This aging boomer population is much more conscious of healthcare spending and the desire to remain independent. Assisted living costs, which average $43,000 per year, are soaring, making it more important than ever for people to be able to live independently.” Known as the “silver tsunami,” it is estimated that by 2060, 100 million people in this country will be age 65 and older.
Both Liles and Paulus say opportunities for inventions in the boomer market are waiting to be discovered. Greater numbers of an aging population will continue to face more challenges each year. “Inventors need to address these,” says Liles. “We need to help the population remain mobile. It’s all about quality of life.”
Liles says to meet this demand, “Talk to people who need help. Ask them what they struggle with. Let your imagination go wild. When you let go and get out of the box is when you get creative.”
“Innovation is about personal experience,” says Paulus. “I’ve been lucky enough to be healthy all my life, but when I was 25 I had surgery on both knees and know what it’s like to be immobile. Everybody’s got great ideas; it’s how you execute them that counts.”