Edmonds man’s inventions keep injured people moving

When Edmonds resident and gymnastics coach Patty-Steele Smith injured her knee, husband Joel Smith did more than offer sympathy: He created a prosthetic that transferred her body weight to her upper leg, allowing her to ditch her crutches so she could remain mobile and continue coaching.

Joel Smith and Patty Steele Smith with Forward Mobility devices. Smith is holding the award-winning Freedom Leg.

The device worked so well for his wife that Smith, a former Boeing Co. aerospace engineer, decided to further refine the design so it could be available for anyone with leg or foot injuries. Last November, Smith’s Freedom Leg Off-Loading Prosthetic invention received the “Newpreneur of the Year” award from Inc. Magazine and Alibaba.com, an online business-to-business marketplace.

The invention was a no-brainer for Smith, who had originally left Boeing to design and manufacture recumbent bicycles. When competitors began moving their manufacturing operations overseas, Smith realized he couldn’t compete with the cheaper labor costs, so he closed his bicycle company. Instead, he began designing medical mobility products through his new Edmonds-based company, Forward Mobility. Creating wheelchairs and seated scooters was a logical transition, Smith said, because they used the same composite materials he had been working with to build bicycles. The Freedom Leg also is built with composites, resulting in a lightweight (2.25-pound) device.

Bill Borders, Forward Mobility’s vice president of sales, said that Smith was one of 13 national “Newpreneur of the Year” finalists invited to the San Francisco competition, which included a 90-second elevator pitch. “Joel went on stage with the Freedom Leg and it was very powerful,” Borders said. After winning the contest, which ended at 11 p.m., Smith was up at 3 a.m. the next morning to conduct 25 radio and TV interviews arranged by the contest organizers.

In addition to the media exposure, Smith received a $50,000 cash prize and was able to spend several hours with management guru Tom Peters. “The prize money was a great injection of capital to quickly ramp up production of the Freedom Leg,” Borders said.

How Smith came to invent the Freedom Leg is an interesting story, but where the device is now being manufactured — in Vietnam, with a workforce that includes local people with disabilities –is even more intriguing. Smith was researching lightweight wheelchair manufacturing and met a representative of the Wheelchair Foundation, which gives away wheelchairs to people worldwide. “He was interested in having me help him redesign the chairs to make them better,” Smith recalled. “He said, ‘If you are going to help us, go on one of our trips to see how the chairs are being used.'”

So Smith made the trip and while he was in Vietnam, he happened to meet an American, originally from Bainbridge Island, who had started a rehabilitation and career training village known as Kids First Enterprise in Dong Ha Town. The goal: to provide medical care, prosthesis fittings and job training for area residents — both adults and children — disabled after stepping on land mines, millions of which still litter the landscape in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, people in developing countries who lose a limb are often sentenced to a lifetime of poverty because they aren’t able to work. Manufacturing wheelchairs and related mobility products in Dong Ha Town means “employing people who may not have an opportunity to be otherwise employed and increasing family-wage jobs as well as community sustainability,” Borders said.

A minimum of 25 percent of the Kids First Enterprise workforce consists of people with disabilities, and all profits from the business fund the rehabilitation and career training village. Smith said he was so impressed with the work being done through Kids First, he decided he would have his own line of medical products manufactured there.

For some, this decision could raise questions about the motives of a local company to move operations overseas, but Smith is an articulate advocate of “indigenous manufacturing,” a familiar concept in the non-profit world  that essentially says this: Instead of giving money to people in developing countries, help them create jobs instead.

“Around the time of 9/11, I realized that most of the people in the world are poor and desperate,” Smith said. “The best defense is to make them not poor and not desperate.”

Edmonds is still home to Forward Mobility’s distribution warehouse and research and development facility, all located in the Harbor Square office park. The company also makes custom products at the Edmonds location – for example, a Freedom Leg for those people larger or smaller than the “one size fits most” model that fits heights from 4’11″to 6’4″. “We hope to eventually have a big and tall version as well as pediatric/teen models,” Borders noted.

With 2 million knee, foot and ankle injuries reported annually in the U.S., the Freedom Leg could soon be providing a crutch-free alternative for many, Borders said. “The biggest innovation is to be able to go up and down stairs,” he said. “It’s the only thing of its kind, as far as we know.”

In fact, future uses for the Freedom Leg are endless, from professional athletes to injured soldiers. Recently, the company shipped two Freedom Leg units to Iraq after Smith met a doctor at Fort Lewis who saw potential applications during wartime. “A medic could strap on the unit to someone who was injured so he could get off the battlefield,” Smith explained. “Right now it takes two soldiers to help one injured solider off.”

While the Freedom Leg is not yet available in clinics or hospitals, Borders said he can provide contact information for local dealers who carry it. Retailing for $395 to $400, it’s in the ballpark of a high-quality knee brace, he added. For details, email info@fwdmobility.com

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