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40 Stories: Courtney Williamson of AbiliLife

While pursuing her doctoral studies at Carnegie Mellon University, Courtney Williamson, Ph.D. CEO and Founder of AbiliLife, developed the concept for a revolutionary back brace. Since 2014, AbiliLife and their Calibrace+ have helped people ranging from Parkinson’s patients to workers suffering from debilitating back injuries.

The Tech Council’s Sheena Carroll recently spoke with Williamson about her experiences as an entrepreneur and educator and where she sees the future of local tech:

SC: Can you tell me more about AbiliLife and how the Calibrace+ came to fruition?

Courtney Williamson, AbiliLifeWILLIAMSON: AbiliLife is a medical device company that we founded in 2014, right here in Pittsburgh. We have an orthotic back brace to improve posture and balance and to reduce back pain and injury—the Calibrace+.

My mom had Parkinson’s Disease for 25 years, and as a part of her disease, she had issues with her posture and balance. I would later find out that this is a cardinal symptom for many Parkinson’s patients, and that there is an even wider network of people who have generalized but incredibly debilitating back pain and injuries.

I wanted to create something that was unique and offered support across your entire torso. The Calibrace+ has a great, patented pulley-tension system—when you put it on, you pull the straps, and they lift your shoulders up and give you support. It gives you the compression that a lot of braces on the market offer today. But it also gives you that lifting feeling, which is very helpful for people with Parkinson’s, people who do a lot of manual labor, and people who may have experienced injuries in the past.

SC: Along with your work at AbiliLife, you also teach a class at Carnegie Mellon University. Can you tell me about that?

WILLIAMSON: I have an Introduction to Entrepreneurship class that I taught last spring. It was exciting for the undergraduate students—most of them didn’t have much exposure to entrepreneurship prior. We covered a lot of topics, from how to make your first sale to the different types of companies you can start, as well as fundraising and building brands around products.

SC: Where do you see the future of tech in Pittsburgh?

WILLIAMSON: Pittsburgh has always been known for its healthcare. And with the various institutions that we have here, I think that industry is going to continue to progress. There are so many new technologies—not just for pharmaceutical care, but also for looking at how the human body functions and understanding how to cure or combat various diseases.

I think that longevity and quality of life are also very important. Interestingly enough, Pittsburgh has a very old population. I think that there's going to be a lot of technology developing that will focus on how we're aging and potentially aging-in-place.

In general, AI has been exploding. But it's interesting because when you say AI, that can mean a whole lot of things, and I don't think that we fully understand what it really does mean yet.

So, I hope what happens is that there will be some very specific use cases for AI that can be integrated into everyday life. We're aware of how it can help enhance things from drug discovery to understanding traffic patterns for city planning. I think that there's a lot of applications. But I'm not sure if we've really homed in on a great product/market fit for AI such that it would be ubiquitous. I'm looking forward to that.

SC: Why did you join the Pittsburgh Tech Council?

WILLIAMSON: I joined the Tech Council because I was looking for a place where I could be around peers—people who were building technology companies. I joined early in my entrepreneurial career. I stayed in touch and then was asked to be on the board. Most recently, I joined the Executive Committee, which is exciting, because it gives me a bird's eye view of what's going on in Pittsburgh tech. I get to play a role in helping to connect really great tech entrepreneurs with the resources that the Tech Council brings in every year.

It just blows my mind how amazing the staff are at the Tech Council and how dedicated they are to enhancing technology in Pittsburgh. What’s often difficult when you're a founder is that you're so busy focusing with your head down, that you don't always look around to see what's available. The Tech Council is a great avenue where you can find out what's going on and ways to partner with people to enhance and grow your business, to get mentorship, and to seek advice and help.

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Powered by DQE CommunicationsFaros Properties|Nova Place and UPMC Health Plan, 40 Stories is a special series celebrating the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s 40th anniversary through the diverse stories of our members, old and new.