“In a big corporation you’re a cog, and now in a start-up you’re the wheel.” That’s how Angie Conley, CEO of the three-year-old Abilitech, described the change from her former life as an executive at Medtronic.
She found her calling in a classic entrepreneurial way: “I learned of a great need that was unmet,” she said.
In between leaving the corporate world and starting her company, which is developing a device that uses a spring and motor to allow people with low strength to move their arms, she worked as executive director at Magic Arms. The non-profit was trying to commercialize a 3D-printed exoskeleton to help children with a rare disease called arthrogryposis.
“The kids moved their arms for the first time ever, and the parents looked like they saw a ghost and they wept,” Conley recalled. “We were able to help kids turn the pages of books and hug their parents.”
But there were three complaints: the exoskeleton was hot and heavy; the arms loaded out in the air like a Frankenstein; and the rubber bands used in the device were either set to either high or low with no ability to move between the two. “Meanwhile, people were begging me,” asking for help.
Conley had never pitched to venture capitalists before, so she applied to the Minnesota Cup, the state’s annual business competition, for mentorship. “What if I found a larger market,” was some of the best advice she received, and put together a business plan and a pitch deck. Within a month of the semi-finals she founded the company.
By late 2019, Conley’s company won the Minnesota Cup’s grand prize and its top woman-owned business category, and had attracted $10.8 million in capital. She went through the Texas Medical Center accelerator program, for one, and found intense interest from stroke patients and many more.
“Because of the unmet need we’ve had tremendous clinical interest,” including from HealthPartners and Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Her company is working side by side with patients to perfect the device. “That’s really, really unique,” she said. “That amplifies our ability to understand the patient needs.”
The device is “remarkably different” from before, said Conley, and her name is on two patents associated with it. It’s a soft, wearable vest made of breathable material.
“We provide a support and assist at the shoulder and the elbow,” which allows movement from different levels. A spring and a motor have replaced those rubber bands. “It’s controlled by the patient. They have to provide about 10 percent” of the lift and the device does the rest. The other big difference: “We have the ability to adjust for the load of the lift,” she said, pointing out it’s different to pick up a pair of glasses than a full cup of coffee, for example.
Conley is thinking much bigger than her original group of patients. “The economics,” she muses, if only 5 percent of people with spinal cord injuries today are back to work in 10 years, are huge. “If we can get back to work faster,” she says, think of the “physical impact, the social impact, the economic impact.”
Abilitech is “pre-revenue,” as the saying goes in venture capital circles, and is set to launch its device in June of 2020.
“You get a little antsy. I can’t wait to get going,” she said, once more sounding like the wheel she has become rather than the cog she was before. “This is such a huge opportunity to make a difference.”