By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller
Did you know there is a NASA spin-out company just a stone’s throw away from Milwaukee?
Sheboygan-based VibeTech, headed by engineer and founder Dr. Jeff Leismer, is using technology developed to help astronauts combat the physical effects of space travel to build muscle in immobile patients.
Leismer became interested in creating tools to overcome the atrophy-related bone and muscle loss incurred by astronauts in space when he was a biomedical engineering student at Michigan Tech. He pursued a doctorate in mechanical engineering to better understand the impact of applying mechanical forces to bones weakened by space travel (or advanced age).
He began to explore a technical solution to the problem which is “based on the principle that vibration forces that act naturally on the body through the feet and legs as people walk could be replicated mechanically to stimulate tissues into being worked as they would be during normal physical exercise.”
Through his work he discovered there were many parallels between astronauts and those whose physical limitations make it a struggle to stand and walk independently. He observed the same atrophy-related issues, known as dysmobility syndrome, which describes the physical deterioration that occurs in all humans as a result of lack of exercise, in both populations.
“I started really looking at why every step we take is so important. How much force does each step impart on the body? I found some studies that used a force plate and they measured a spike in that force that was occurring with each step. What was interesting is you could see elements of impact vibration in that signal,” he said.
“So, just like in Jurassic Park, you know how they can tell the T-Rex is coming, you see the glass of water and the vibration ripples in that water? That same effect happens every time we take a step. There are impact vibrations,” explained Leismer.
“If you look at the frequency spectrum, you can see which frequency happens most often and there happens to be a spike in the frequency range that coincides with the frequency at which our fast-twitch muscle fibers contraction,” he continued.
“I thought ‘that can’t be just some random coincidence. I bet there’s a reason for that.’ I decided to build a device that would deliver vibrations that mimicked those externally generated vibrations, as well as our internally generated vibrations through our muscles that are responsible for our strength and posture, which are the muscles most negatively affected by a long duration space flight.”
“I figured out how to deliver the vibrations through the feet, because that’s where most vibrations occur,” he said. “If you make something great for an astronaut that’s effective for them with their atrophy, you’ve got a huge market of older adults and people experiencing disuse atrophy.”
“It started off as a journey to help astronauts with bone loss. But now we find that we can help people no matter where they’re at with their strength and mobility journey to be able to restore lost strength and restore a loss of function,” Leismer said.
This work resulted in 11 patents and an invention that allows patients to place their feet on a machine and reap the muscle and bone development gained by exercise without moving.
“If we can provide a supplement that gives people the correct dose of the active ingredients of weight bearing physical activity, treating it just like a drug, then we can start to get people to be able to get back on their feet even as they recover from an injury,” he said.
Rehabilitation facilities, physical therapy clinics, and senior living communities have embraced the technology. VibeTech won the Wisconsin Innovation Award in 2017 in the biotech category, and the McKnight’s Excellence in Technology Innovator of the Year Gold Award in 2020 in the Skilled Nursing Track for the company’s work with its skilled nursing innovation partner, Rocky Knoll Health Care Center, in reducing patient falls.
“The cost of care goes down as exercise goes up,” Leismer said. The CDC estimates that “$50 billion is spent on medical costs related to non-fatal fall injuries and $754 million is spent related to fatal falls” each year. Leismer explained that patients most likely to fall are those who struggle with the mobility issues VibeTech addresses. In addition to the financial gains realized by preventative care, the facilities using VibeTech also generate revenue from administering this ground-breaking therapy to patients.
The in-demand precision machines are built in the Midwest.
“We have a manufacturer in Michigan that is well-versed in making high quality electro-mechanical products for customers in regulated industries, and we know we’re going to be able to work with them to scale up very rapidly. We’re in really good hands with those guys right now,” Leismer said.
Launched in 2010, the company successfully emerged from its research and development phase with FDA listings and over 20 clinical studies that prove the safety and efficacy of the product.
VibeTech is about to begin what Leismer describes as “lean startup mode.”
The company, which has been largely bootstrapped, supported by individual angel investors, and backed by grants, including one from the National Institute on Aging, will soon look for additional funding. Early indications suggest investors will be enthusiastic about VibeTech. The company raised $356,074 through crowdfunding in 2021 to help bring its product to market, which is now available for pre-order.
To learn more about VibeTech and see the machine in action, connect with the company here.