Leaning on a new design

A foot injury -- and a bad rehabilitation experience -- inspired a furniture designer to develop Mobilegs -- a new take on crutches that's gaining traction.

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Founders John White (left) and Jeff Weber in their Minneapolis, MN design facility on June 7, 2012.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Jeff Weber could never get comfortable using crutches while recovering from a foot injury several years ago.

Weber, a furniture designer, came away from the experience with sore wrists and armpits and decided it was time to go to the drawing board.

The standard-issue crutch, which probably originated from the fork of a tree branch centuries ago, was insufficient, he concluded. In the workshop in the back of his Warehouse District design studio, he set about the task of developing "a new assisted-mobility solution that was so agile, so functional and so comfortable it actually facilitates movement not just stabilization."

Today, Weber is co-founder of Bloomington-based Mobi, which recently struck a deal with a national medical products distributor to sell 50,000-plus pairs of its Mobilegs that retail for up to $130.

Mobi, which commenced production in 2011, sold about 8,000 pairs last year and posted revenue of about $1 million.

The nine-person company this year was recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine as one its "100 Brilliant Companies'' for the sleek design and ergonomic function. This spring, its Mobilegs crutch alternative received the top prize for design in the medical and scientific category of the International Plastics Showcase in Florida. The judges considered criteria of aesthetic effect, manufacturing quality, innovation, creativity, design, materials, finishing, ease of use, comfort and function.

"Our value proposition is that this is an experience, which compared to a traditional crutch, reduces secondary injury," Weber said. "We wanted to provide a solution for people to regain mobility and we've done that in an elegant way. You sort of add insult to injury with the traditional crutch."

Mobilegs are designed to provide greater stability, reduce secondary injuries, conserve physical energy and improve the recovery experience. Ultimately, the company aims to completely transform the world of assisted mobility.

In an interview last week, Weber and Mobi president John White, a veteran sales executive and business owner, said the key difference is Mobilegs is the "breathable, compliant" saddle under the arm that articulates on two pivot points, kind of like a teeter-totter, so the shock-absorbing saddle stays constant with the underarm as weight shifts. Also, the single-component structure versus the wider, two-tube crutch, is designed to "facilitate a better hip-to-hand clearance" and also allows the walker to more easily clear doorways and narrow passages.

Marty Carlson, veteran CEO of Blaine-based Tamarack Habilitation Technologies, which makes prosthetic products, joints and related tools, said he was most struck by the pivoting saddle.

"[That] looks like a real innovation," Carlson said. "This could be a nice improvement over crutches that have a rigidly attached armpit saddle."

Mobilegs, which cost more than twice the price of traditional crutches, around the globe, are getting noticed. Fans include WCCO-TV anchorman Frank Vascellaro and Timberwolves player Ricky Rubio, both of whom used them following surgeries.

The privately held company manufactures in China where most of the world's 10 million crutches are made annually.

"We're local kids but we just couldn't make the economics work here," White said. "Almost all crutches are made in China. It's not something you implant in your body."

Weber's design idea has evolved into a small growth company. The next product: the "mobistick" cane. And there are others on the drawing board.

The company has raised about $4 million from investors through three rounds of financing, including a recent stake by the Pohlad family that represents the single-largest investment, but a minority stake, Weber and White said.

Robert Pohlad, the former CEO of PepsiAmericas, has placed two associates on the Mobi board to represent the family's interest: Alex Ware, the former chief financial officer of PepsiAmericas, and Brian Wenger, a lawyer at Briggs and Morgan.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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