Article Published: December 2, 2015
Article Published: December 2, 2015
By Tim Hayes, Contributing Writer
“My mother suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for 25 years before she passed. Her posture deteriorated, and her ability to remain steady on her feet was affected. I had to push her shoulders back to give her some relief and help her stand more erect. I became convinced there had to be some way to help people like my mom.”
So began the personal journey for Courtney Williamson, founder and CEO of AbiliLife, a company dedicated to producing products that assist Parkinson’s patients and others with balance issues or lower back pain. Its breakthrough product, Calibrace, does just that, and in a uniquely elegant and affordable fashion.
A stretchy and breathable brace closes comfortably around the torso with a Velcro fastening across the front of the body. The Calibrace offers support in two ways; the shoulder straps and built-in pulley system gently and firmly lift the shoulders up and back for stability. A sturdy flat aluminum panel encased in plush fabric provides a discrete spine. The real value of the Calibrace, though, can be seen on the faces of Parkinson’s patients within seconds of putting it on, said Williamson.
“Problems with posture and instability affect 90 percent of Parkinson’s patients,” she explained. “These patients have a higher risk of falling than their elderly counterparts. They eventually suffer from stooped posture, weakened muscles, their brain receptors can’t tell them where they are in space. Their center of gravity moves behind them, leading to backward falls. This is a very serious medical issue.
“The Calibrace improves the wearer’s posture nine degrees just by putting it on, which may not sound like a lot, but is a very significant improvement for these patients,” Williamson continued. “The disease forces their perspective downward, they can’t look up easily. But within the first minute of patients putting on the Calibrace, they can stand erect again. We have seen the change reflected in their faces and in comments like, ‘I can see out again now, not just down.’”
With the experience of her mother fresh in her mind, Williamson began researching the issue in 2013 as part of a capstone course at Carnegie Mellon University. When she determined that no suitable solutions existed, she sought assistance through the university’s entrepreneurial incubator, Project Olympus, and teamed up with a CMU student specializing in biomedical engineering.
The product had to be lightweight, discreet, and rigid enough to hold a person upright without impairing movement. Today, a specialty manufacturer produces the American-made Calibrace, which can be purchased online at indiegogo.com, a crowd-sourcing site. Visitors also can buy Calibraces to be donated to Parkinson’s patients.
“After we began going to conferences, people had immediate improvement, and noticed a clear benefit,” Williamson said. “Duquesne University will monitor about 10 to 15 Parkinson’s patients wearing the Calibrace, to analyze how people move with and without it, which will help to provide independent proof of how well the brace works.”
“The next idea is to have motion sensors built into the Calibrace, to tell where you are, how you’re moving, are you tremoring, to let patients know what’s happening with their bodies,” she added. “We want the Calibrace to provide real-time information to prevent falls and help to facilitate independent living for seniors, and we’re working on that now.”
Western Pennsylvania has one of the largest per capita rates of Parkinson’s patients, according to Williamson. There are 1.5 million patients across the country and 10 million around the world that could benefit from Calibrace, said Williamson. She said the company is currently pursuing VA hospitals to prescribe Calibrace where more than 80,000 patients have Parkinson’s. At the same time, Abililife is looking to expand in the European market as well.
“I learned, first from my mother, that Parkinson’s is a boutique disease. One patient is not the same as another,” said Williamson “But, we believe strongly that the Calibrace can help them all. My mom never got to wear it, but this is her legacy.”
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