Kansas City Couple Updates Century-Old Crutch With Armpit-Friendly Design

Jan 20, 2016

The basic technology of the crutch, Max and Liliana Younger knew, hadn’t changed since the Civil War.

But when Max’s father became a permanent crutch user after a partial leg amputation in 2008, the married couple — both industrial designers by training — committed themselves to rethinking an age-old technology.

“We knew it was something we needed to change,” Max says.

What began as a college thesis project morphed into the centerpiece of a business startup. Eventually, Liliana would quit her job to become CEO of Mobility Designed; Max would take the title of Chief Innovation Officer, even as he kept working full-time for Hallmark.

Their design for a sleek new crutch — and its potential for business success — is attracting attention. The Youngers won the 2015 Venture Creation Challenge, a competition sponsored by the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Regnier Institute that identifies top business plans and offers seed funding.

“If you’ve ever been on crutches, you know that they can be very painful. It’s basically like doing a handstand every other step. And now imagine having to use crutches every day for the rest of your life,” Liliana says, rehearsing a portion of the company’s “elevator pitch” (for which they also won an award).

“There’s 736,000 permanent crutch users in the U.S., and in our first year, we plan to approach those permanent users, being the people that need it the most and are really invested in a better solution. We project sales of approximately 2500 units and, with those sales, our first year revenues would be around half a million dollars.”

Eventually, the Youngers plan to offer a lower-priced version of the product for temporary crutch users as well, breaking into a $320 million a year market.

“The potential for the business is great, and it’s a noble thing to be working toward,” Liliana says.

The couple started a Kickstarter campaign, with mixed results. They did not meet their fundraising goal through that venue, but they say the experience helped them learn where better to focus their marketing. Most of their funding has come, instead, from individual angel investors, as well as grants from Kansas City entrepreneurship incubators like Digital Sandbox KC.

The project has been part of the couple’s life since they met as undergraduates at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Much of their learning has come in divvying up responsibilities.

“A lot of the design — aesthetics, ergonomics, and user-focused decision-making, working with engineering — would be in my camp,” says Max, who is 32.

“For me it’s been more about the business side,” says Liliana, 31, who is also trained in industrial design. “There’s lots of more personal reasons behind why we decided for me to be on the business side and Max to continue on the product side. It just made more sense. We have a small son and one of us had to step out of our full-time job to do this.”

“Plus, it’s better when she’s my boss,” Max says.

The couple is familiar with big challenges. A few years ago, they redid their home, renovating the first story and tearing off and rebuilding the second story — doing all the work themselves. They say it was good preparation for what they hope is work with real impact.

“I think it definitely has the potential to be a disruptive technology, but thinking about it in 50 years, will all crutches look like that?” Liliana wonders. “I think we’d love to see that happen. It’s just hard to know when it’s such an innovative thing. But we have faith that it can change at least a few lives, and that’s worth it for us.”

This interview was part of Innovation KC, a series of conversations about innovation and innovators in Kansas City. To suggest Kansas City innovators for future interviews, send us an emailtweet us, or find us on Facebook.

Brian Ellison is a host/contributor at KCUR. You can reach him at brian@kcur.org or on Twitter @ptsbrian.