Dave Purcell meant to stay retired after he ended his 23-year stint with Encad, a San Diego company he co-founded to manufacture large-format inkjet printers capable of printing poster-size images and banners. Purcell gradually eased out of the business after Eastman Kodak (NYSE: KODK) acquired Encad in 2002 in a deal that was valued at $25 million at the time.
But after watching his wife Jean fall a number of times while using a conventional walker, the former electronics industry CEO felt personally compelled to start another company. “I watched her with a walker, and I thought, ‘Hell, I can do better than that,” Purcell recalled.
At the age of 77, Purcell is now taking the wraps off ProtoStar—a San Diego startup developing a new type of medical walker. ProtoStar plans to introduce its first product—the LifeWalker Upright mobility device—later this month at a meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association in Anaheim, CA.
The LifeWalker is designed to let users stand upright and walk safer, longer, and more comfortably than they can with conventional walkers and canes. ProtoStar plans to price the LifeWalker at almost $1,800, according to a spokesman for the company.
“Where we’re headed, though, is to a smart walker,” Purcell said yesterday. He didn’t provide many details, but said artificial intelligence would be integrated into future generations of the LifeWalker.
ProtoStar estimates the global market for mobility products is roughly $4 billion, with more than 8.5 million devices sold in 2013. According to the company, the total cost of fall injuries was $34 billion in 2013, and is expected to rise to nearly $68 billion by 2020.
In the United States, ProtoStar says the risk of injuries caused by falls also is increasing as baby boomers age. One-third of those who are over 65, or more than 12 million elderly Americans, fall each year, along with falls related to obesity, hip and knee replacements, spinal cord injuries, neurological, gait, and orthopedic disorders.
While testing LifeWalker prototypes, Purcell said he also has been encouraged to develop smaller versions of the device for children with cerebral palsy and spina bifida.
Purcell founded ProtoStar in 2014; he provided much of the necessary funding, but also raised money from a few outside investors. While ProtoStar has only taken the first steps in targeting the mobility market, Purcell already has recruited several prominent San Diego tech and life science leaders to serve on the company’s board.
The list includes Peter Farrell, the founder and chairman of Carlsbad, CA-based ResMed (NYSE: RMD); Dr. Steven Garfin, a distinguished professor and chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery at UC San Diego; Drew Senyei, managing director of San Diego’s Enterprise Partners Venture Capital; and Craig Andrews, a corporate lawyer in San Diego who has worked extensively with local startups focused on the life sciences and medical devices.