Jeff Leismer wants to help people stay in space longer.
Leismer, the founder of Sheboygan, WI-based physical therapy equipment maker VibeTech, got the idea for his company in 2002 as a graduate student at Michigan Technological University. One of his advisors there was studying the physiology of astronauts who had recently returned to earth.
In microgravity, an astronaut’s body can carry out quotidian tasks like eating and brushing one’s teeth with less effort than would be required on earth, where our bodies are under the constant force of gravity. Despite working out two to three hours per day in space to maintain muscle mass, says Leismer, the average astronaut who has spent a year in microgravity comes back with 20 percent reduced bone density.
“The number one reason why we can’t do long-duration space travel” is disuse atrophy, where the body loses vigor from lack of activity, he says.
Leismer started to think the answer to this problem might lie in a special kind of mechanical vibration, which had been shown to make some animals’ bones thicker. The vibration essentially tricks the body into believing it’s hard at work, which stimulates bone growth.
“I came up with a way of exercising the body without people actually doing exercise,” says Leismer. “My first time using my equipment, I worked my leg muscles to complete fatigue in 10 minutes without doing anything. That was my ‘aha’ moment. I said, ‘I need a patent. I need to get a company going around this.’”
Thirteen years later, Leismer has made good on his vows. His startup has five issued or licensed patents, not to mention a viable product: a leg press machine called VibeTech One that delivers tiny vibrations to the skin. These vibrations start in the feet—most users wear socks for sanitary reasons, says Leismer—and pass all the way up to the lower back. He says some users may feel a mild sensation but for others, the vibrations are barely perceptible.
The machine loosely resembles one of the rowing machines found at many gyms, a key difference being that with VibeTech One, the user stays in place while exercising. On one end is a swivel chair that reclines about 45 degrees, complete with seatback, headrest, and armrests. On the other end is a foot plate configured to vibrate at a frequency that causes muscles to contract involuntarily.
There is literally no effort required. Individuals lacking sensation or strength in their legs can just sit and relax while the machine works. However, those wanting to exert themselves can set the foot plate to provide resistance as they extend their legs and push it forward.
VibeTech appears to have some clear objectives:
In the next two months, Leismer says, VibeTech will work with medical device industry veterans and other advisors to refine its business model and investor pitch as part of the Healthcare Innovation Pitch program. The program is organized by Bridge to Cures, a nonprofit created last year to provide mentorship and seed funding to medical entrepreneurs. At a kick-off event last weekend in downtown Milwaukee, VibeTech won the “business model canvas” award, which recognizes the top idea for a company based on how it’s explained on a single poster board.
In the next two years, the company will continue working to get its leg press into as many nursing homes, hospitals, and clinics as possible.
As for the next two decades? Leismer says things could come full circle.
“The ultimate goal is getting one of these aboard the International Space Station or a commercial space venture,” he says. “In the 2030s, when NASA sends astronauts to Mars, I’d love to produce the necessary equipment to maintain an astronaut’s musculoskeletal health during the nine-month flights and one-and-a-half years they’re on Mars in reduced gravity.”
Leismer’s “aha” moment in 2002 was a realization that the vibration technology worked and likely had commercial potential. But he couldn’t yet answer another pivotal question: Was the machine safe?
Hoping to better understand vibration’s effects on the body, Leismer enrolled in a doctorate program in mechanical engineering at the University of Florida. For his dissertation, he investigated the fracture properties of bones. He says he determined from his studies that “what we were doing was a perfectly safe stimulus for bones.”
Then, as he was getting ready to start applying his new knowledge to his old idea, life intervened.
“As I was finishing up, I ended up having twin boys,” he says. “I said, ‘You know what? I should probably get a real job before I use this Ph.D. to get the federal finances I need to get the company off the ground, because that’s a 12-month process.’”
He moved back to the Midwest and began working at Kohler, the Northern Wisconsin manufacturer known for its plumbing products. He left that job after a little over a year and, while juggling teaching appointments at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and UW-Sheboygan, he applied for a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health and was awarded $200,000.
Leismer thought his technology could make the biggest impact initially by focusing on the … Next Page »