Kelly Collier, CEO of ActivAided Orthotics
Describe ActivAided Orthotics in one sentence.
We make rehabilitative body suits to help active and athletic people with lower back pain and lumbar spine disorders.
How did you come up with the idea for your company?
My friends and I have always suffered from lower back pain as a result of our active lifestyles and could never find any decent treatments.
As a competitive swimmer for Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), I experienced debilitating back pain every swim season. The only advice I got from my trainers was to “suck it up” or “stop swimming so much,” neither of which really helped me. But that was nothing compared to my friend’s experience in high school.
He had stress fractures in parts of his spine from playing baseball and ended up having to wear a bulky, full-torso, hard plastic back brace for nine months. Besides being a miserable experience, I just thought there had to be a better way than this archaic and incredibly inconvenient way to treat back pain.
So, my senior year at CMU I took “Biomedical Engineering Design” where the entire aim of the course is to just “engineer something” and I finally had the chance to do something about it.
I know you have a background in Material Science and Mechanical Engineering, but how were you able to gain the technical and medical expertise to design such a prototype?
We got connected with Dr. Gary Chimes, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at UPMC. He theorized that the majority of back problems are caused by tiny bad habits over time—things like poor posture or using incorrect technique while doing certain motion patterns or activities repetitively.
Dr. Chimes always wanted someone to create a device that taught people how to correct these bad habits so it could rehabilitate somebody who has an injury while also training their body to prevent future injuries.
With this concept, my team built a prototype of a sleek, wearable training device (pictured right). When we showed it to Dr. Chimes he loved it and said, “I wish something like this actually existed so I could give it to my patients.”
At the time I was committed to a PhD program at Johns Hopkins, but I loved working on the project so much, I couldn’t just let it die. So I deferred, and he and I decided to start a company around the device.
Do you see any major differences going through AlphaLab as a non-software company?
I don’t think I’m that different than most of these software companies other than the fact that my office is cluttered with fabric, a mannequin, and a sewing machine [Laughs]. We’re still going through the same process and the same hurdles so all the things we learn about in the program and all the new connections we’re making are still incredibly relevant and valuable to me.
What’s your favorite thing about AlphaLab?
Working in this amazing space with all these people who completely understand what you’re going through. It’s like a built-in support system.
And I’m not just talking about the current cycle of companies. The alumni regularly work out of here so I can ask them what life is like after Demo Day and after AlphaLab. It’s comforting but also a source of motivation. It’s so easy to make the connection between the fact that a year ago they were working out of your cube, sitting in your chair, and now they are growing a wildly successful company.
I also love all the random people that come in and out of here who end up being great resources. I remember one time Don Morrison was here meeting with someone else and stopped by my cube because he saw all my fabric and he said, “I worked in apparel for 25 years.” Random interactions like that just make me think, “This place is incredible.”
Do you have any advice for new entrepreneurs?
The startup world isn’t for everyone; in fact, it’s not for most people. To start a company you’ve got to whole-heartedly love what you do, absolutely believe in your idea, and be determined not to let it fail, even if it’s the last thing you do. Also, you need to find the right people to put on your team. People who care about your company and believe in your vision as much as you do, and are willing to take the same strides as you. Realize that it is a rough world, every minute feels like it’s do or die, and that feeling has got to excite you, not terrify you. Everyone, you and your team, has to come in every day because there’s truly nothing else in the world they would rather be doing.
Where can people connect with you or sign up to participate in your beta testing?