The 21st century body is being built in Washtenaw County

Dan Johnson has always had a bit of an obsession with Iron Man. He had been collecting the comics since age 12. Going to the Iron Man movie was almost a religious experience for him. And it directly led to the creation of his own startup.

"It was one of the reasons why I went into engineering in the first place," Johnson says.

One of Johnson's college advisers wanted him to go for a doctorate in mechanical engineering. Johnson refused unless he could create something real as his dissertation.

"I wanted it to be an exoskeleton," Johnson says. "My PhD work was definitely inspired by that. That was probably the biggest reason."

Johnson received his PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 2012. His dissertation centered around creating a back brace for the 21st Century that could help back pain suffers avoid surgery or recover from surgery or even help support medical professionals  performing intense procedures, such as hour long surgeries.

That served as the basis for the launch of Exo Dynamics, an Ann Arbor-based startup. It's one of a number of local biomechanical startups in Washtenaw County that are making lives easier, reinventing their niches of the healthcare industry, and creating jobs.

Tech Transfer

Exo Dynamics is developing an electro-mechanical back brace. The company is billing it as "the next generation of innovative spinal orthoses, devices meant to provide support and mobility." The idea is to help people who suffer from back problems regain mobility and enjoy a productive, active, and independent life.

"They could use it in lieu of or post surgery," says Mushir Khwaja, chief commercial officer of Exo Dynamics. He adds, "There are 250,000 back surgeries perform in the U.S. every year."

Khwaja estimates the market potential for such a product is $1.2 billion. But the Ann Arbor-based startup, its office is in the Venture Accelerator in the University of Michigan's North Campus Research Complex, isn't going for that brass ring right away.

First it is developing four commercially viable prototypes this fall. The startup's team of four people plan to test it this winter and have a product it plans to sell to doctors performing long surgeries to help provide them with back support. That would allow the startup to begin generating revenue without jumping through all the hoops of getting federal approval.

The market size for doctors performing surgery is estimated at $300 million with each back brace retailing for $5,000. Add in other medical professionals like dentists, and that number goes up another $760 million. The company hopes to generate revenue there while getting federal approval for its device to be used for back pain suffers. All of these markets are ripe for the picking, according to Khwaja. 

"We're introducing an innovative product for the back brace market," Khwaja says. "The market hasn't seen any product innovation for the last half century. We feel it's right for bring it into the 21st Century."

Innovation in a medical office

Not all of the biotechnology being developed by local startups spins out of universities. The mouthguard developed and marketed by Akervall Technologies is coming from a local medical practice.

Dr. Jan Akervall, a local ear, nose and throat specialist, first started playing around with the idea of building a better mouth guard about a decade ago when he couldn't find a suitable one on the market. The result was a thin-yet-tough mouthguard made of non-compressible, perforated material. It is 30 percent stronger than conventional mouth guards.

The SISU Mouth Guard is marketed toward athletes as a stronger alternative that is both lighter and less obstructive that traditional mouth guards. SISU is a popular word in Finland that roughly translates to "determination, strength, resilience." 

Akervall Technologies also recently released the SOVA mouth guard which is designed for people who grind their teeth in their sleep. The company is now working on a mouth guard that can be used for patient during oral surgeries and a new mouth guard made of reactive material.

"We call is the first reaction mouth guard," says Sassa Akervall, CEO of Akervall Technologies and Dr. Jan Akervall's wife. "It reacts on impact. It's like a safety belt for your teeth."

Akervall Technologies was built out of the basement of the Akervalls' Ann Arbor home for its first seven years. The company reached a staff of eight people before it took its first office in Saline this spring. Now it's doing everything from research and development in its own wetlab (it's also doing a study in conjunction with the University of Michigan School of Denistry to manufacturing and packaging the item in an adjacent light industrial space.

Akervall Technologies recently signed a co-branding agreement with Reebok and a few other companies. It cleared $900, 000 in revenue last year and is on track to make $1.5 million in revenue this year. The company recently hired six people and has expanded its R&D team to three scientists and one assistant scientists with plans to add more people soon.

"We have all this talent," Sassa Akervall says. "We can do it in-house. Why would we send that work out to a lab? We're looking to help create more jobs here."

21st Century lift

And some of the most promising biomechanical startups have nothing to do with local universities. The Lavin Lift Strap got its start in the home of a local family looking to make the best of a tough situation.

Manuel Lavin's father had taken ill and eventually made him bed-ridden. Alzheimer's had made him unable to care for himself and incontinent. Still Lavin's mother insisted on taking care of him at home. That proved to be a difficult proposition as she struggled to move his body. 

"What she really needed was someone to help lift him so she could clean the bed," Lavin says.

So Lavin invented a way to do just that. He found some old seat belt materials, an aluminum plate, and some pieces of velcro and turned it all into a pulley-type system that enabled his mother to move his father.

Today the Lavin Lift Strap is in its fifth version. They make a system that can be used repeatedly and one that is disposable. All of them are are built with the comfort of the patient and ease of use of the medical professional in mind.

"One of the things we are complimented on when we go to conferences is how comfortable they are," says Donna Gilkey-Lavin,and co-founder of the company. "They are big and squishy."

Gilkey-Lavin is also Manuel Lavin's wife. She worked in middle management at Dell before coming to work on Lavin Lift Strap full-time. Lavin worked in intellectual property and ran another small business before starting Lavin Lift Strap. Now the couple oversees a staff of 13 people from the company's offices in the Ann Arbor SPARK East incubator in downtown Ypsilanti. The Lavin Lift Strap is manufactured a few minutes away at Trim-Co, a small manufacturer in Belleville. 

"Our manufacturing is done in Michigan," Gilkey-Lavin says. "We get a quality product here. We are constantly complimented on the product, and people here know how to make it."

The Lavin Lift Strap is sold across the U.S. with Amazon serving as one of its main distributors. Revenue for the company has increased annually by double-digits over the last few years. It is now working to make some large sales to institutions and some international sales to Canada in 2015. Not bad for a company that got its start in a family's basement.

Jon Zemke is the Innovation & News Editor for Concentrate and its sister publications, Model D and Metromode. He is also the Managing Editor for

All photos by Doug Coombe
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