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Experience With Illness Is Catalyst for Creating New Business

Extreme athlete Kim Goodsell has a bevy of health conditions that could severely limit her ability to walk. But with research, ingenuity and sheer pluck she has taken charge of her own health — and launched a new company as a result.

Proability Walk Art L3C, in collaboration with Carlsbad-based design firm DDStudio Inc., has developed a mobility device called the Rova — essentially a hybrid between a walker and a shopping cart, though Goodsell doesn’t like to call it that. She opts instead for the term “pedestrian assistive technology” as a way to destigmatize the product, which has all the trappings of a modern racing bike.

Goodsell, a 56-year-old athlete with incurable wanderlust, spent the majority of her life traveling the world with her husband, competing in Iron Man triathlons and flipping houses for cash. About 20 years ago, she learned she had a dangerous arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, and had to slow down incrementally. Then in 2010, things got much worse.

“I just hit a wall. I really was in incredible pain,” Goodsell said. “Every bone in my body felt like I needed a joint replacement.”

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She was diagnosed with a rare form of arthritis, on top of a rare cardiac disease — and it just didn’t make sense. So Goodsell, who has no medical training, pored over scientific literature to try and find a root cause for her health problems — there had to be an answer somewhere in her DNA. After all, Eric Topol, a renowned San Diego expert in genomic medicine and vocal proponent of the concept of the empowered patient, now calls the odds of Goodsell having this combination of rare diseases “greater than getting hit by an asteroid.”

Amazingly, in her readings she happened upon an esoteric gene that appeared to be the link between her myriad diseases. Goodsell’s physician at the Mayo Clinic was skeptical, but after some coaxing conducted the $3,000 genetic test to see if she guessed correctly. She did.

Goodsell is the first person to correctly link a genetic mutation to her own health issues, and has captured the interest of scientists around the country.

And now that she understood the trajectory that her illnesses would take, she decided to do something about it.

Inspired by Shopping Cart’s Stability

To prepare for her eventual need for walking assistance, Goodsell’s husband began tinkering in his garage about two years ago and developed “a clunky little prototype” that would ultimately lead to DDStudio’s sleeker Rova.

“When I got sick, I had to start using ambulatory aides, and the market was absolutely dismal,” Goodsell said. “I was offended by the fact that the 21st century is defined by great, innovative design and technology, but this segment of the population is largely ignored.”

So DDStudio modeled the prototype with the same kinds of materials used in the high-performance carbon fiber bicycles that Goodsell still uses. It’s inspired in part by shopping carts, which are frequently used in rehabilitation centers because of their stability. Proability has a utility patent on the design.

The design even draws inspiration from origami. Scientists are frequently searching for more efficient ways to fold materials, ranging from metals — as in the Rova — all the way down to protein molecules used in pharmaceuticals. Goodsell, after watching a documentary about NASA scientist-turned-origami expert Robert Lang, reached out for a consult on ways to make the Rova more portable.

The design accommodates the addition of wireless health monitors or other personal electronics — fields that DDStudio frequently works in. The Rova will be much more expensive than a standard walker, which runs about $100. Proability Walk Art wants to initially deploy the Rova in rehabilitation centers to test users’ satisfaction with it.

Designing for the Experience

DDStudio calls itself an “experience design firm,” meaning it focuses on the user’s experience as much — or more so — than on the aesthetics. It employs 18 people and has a vast client list that includes Qualcomm Inc., Sotera Wireless Inc. and the former Life Technologies Corp., which was recently acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.

“We’re sort of helping them move forward with investors, since we’re well embedded in the San Francisco and San Diego investment community,” DDStudio CEO Charles Curbbun said. “We helped with the design, helped create a prototype, and now we’re making an investment in the company.”

Proability embraces the concept of social entrepreneurship, a business model that measures a product’s impact not only by its profitability but also by its greater impact on society. The company is registered as a low-profit, limited liability company, or L3C — companies that are meant to bridge the gap between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds. Under this designation, Goodsell is planning to reach out to foundations to primarily fund the company. The company, which formed a little less than a year ago, is still private and funded exclusively by Goodsell and her husband.

Proability Walk Art has become something much bigger than a way for Goodsell to empower herself as a patient, she said. After conducting a study in Portland, Ore., she concluded that its use needn’t be limited to the disabled. She sees its potential in urban settings — for instance, it’d be useful for pedestrians to tote groceries.

“Walking is such a fundamental activity,” she said. “We want to engage people from all walks of life.”

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