CMU grad turns senior project into her own business
January 2, 2014 11:46 PM
Darrell Sapp / Post-Gazette
Kelly Collier, left, and Jenn Lambiase with some of the drawings for products at ActivAided Orthotics. They make shirts that support lower back muscles.
Darrell Sapp / Post-Gazette
Jenn Lambiase, left, and Kelly Collier of startup company ActivAided Orthotics demonstrate shirts that support lower back muscles.
By Michael Sanserino / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Kelly Collier just wanted an A.
In her final year at Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Collier, a dual major in material science and biomedical engineering, teamed with a group of peers on a class project to invent a product for the medical world.
She got that A -- and a lot more than she bargained for.
That class project changed her life and her career trajectory. After inventing a shirt that promotes better posture to reduce back pain, Ms. Collier spurned a doctoral program in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University to turn her invention into a business.
"We decided to take our A and push it further," she said.
Ms. Collier, 24, is now the CEO of ActivAided Orthotics, which operates out of a two-room office in the sprawling Riverside Center for Innovation complex on the North Shore. With four tables, a couple of laptop computers and a lounge area, the business has come a long way since the summer of 2011, when Ms. Collier started the company in her family's West Mifflin basement using her mom's sewing machine.
"I think if I really knew what I was getting myself into up front, I would have been too scared," Ms. Collier said. "But once I jumped in and started doing it, I just started figuring it out as I went along."
The company employs three people, including Ms. Collier, and did about $100,000 in sales in 2013, its first full year of production. Since first beta testing the shirts in March 2012, ActivAided Orthotics has sold 380 shirts nationwide, either through medical distributors in the Pittsburgh area or on the company's website, ActivAided.com. It is not yet profitable as it battles supply chain issues and personnel costs.
The company is still perfecting its product with the help of feedback of customers, but precise changes are challenging to execute when dealing with a long list of industrial designers, seamstresses and textile manufacturers, who often work at different paces.
"People are the most fickle," said Jenn Lambiase, 27, the company's marketing manager. "You kind of know what your product is going to do. But one day, your seamstress will throw her hands in the air and say, 'I'm done.'"
Though Ms. Collier invented the product with five classmates, she is the only remaining Carnegie Mellon alumni involved with the company.
As part of the school's biomedical engineering degree, students must create product as a prerequisite for graduation.
Ms. Collier was a swimmer in college and struggled to cope with back pain. She and the other students reached out to a handful of area physicians for advice.
Only one -- Gary Chimes, who worked for UPMC Sports Medicine at the time -- responded. He pitched them the idea for a shirt that promoted posture on one condition: He get part of the patent.
Dr. Chimes, who now runs a sports medicine practice in Bellevue, Wash., is an equity owner with ActivAided Orthotics.
"It was really, really fun as a class project," Ms. Collier said. "But building a company is a whole other ballgame. Some people fit really well into that environment. Some people don't. Luckily, we had a very low-stakes time period for each of us to figure out if we fit."
She graduated in 2011 and developed the business plan for the company that summer -- between shifts as a carousel operator at Schenley Park. Only one of her classmates stuck around through the summer, but even that person backed away shortly after they were forced to move operations -- and themselves -- into Ms. Collier's parents' house in West Mifflin.
"We all underestimated what this was going to be," Ms. Collier said. "One thing that came up on us quick that summer was how long it was going to be until we all had some money."
ActivAided Orthotics capitalized on resources available to Carnegie Mellon students. The company leaned on Kit Needham, the former senior vice president for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, who teaches and advises Carnegie Mellon students as the entrepreneur in residence at Project Olympus, the school's innovation center.
Ms. Collier got her first investment, $2,000, from her grandparents after she wooed them with lunch at Bravo and a business presentation. "If anybody's going to believe in what you're doing, let's hope it's your grandparents," she said.
Since then, her company has developed a lot of believers. The Idea Foundry life science accelerator program gave it a $2,000 grant and helped Ms. Collier apply for an international patent. ActivAided Orthotics' patent is pending, but it lists all five college classmates and Dr. Chimes as product inventors.
In 2012, the company was accepted at AlphaLab, a startup accelerator on the South Side that invested $25,000, supplied office space and offered "a whole lot of help," Ms. Collier said.
Then there were a pair of investments from Innovation Works, an economic development firm located in South Oakland, an investment from the Carnegie Mellon Open Field Entrepreneur Fund established in 2011, and an investment from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.
In all, ActivAided Orthotics received $397,000 in investments. The company also received numerous grants, including $10,000 from the federally funded i6 Challenge, which encourages innovation; $2,000 from Catalyst Connection, a manufacturing-centered economic developer; and $15,000 from Urban Innovation 21, a Pittsburgh-based organization that promotes innovation.
With all the support, Activ-Aided Orthotics has not needed to seek additional funding from venture capital firms or more traditional methods of startup funding.
Ms. Collier and Ms. Lambiase have been promoting the company at conventions and trade shows in hopes of attracting new customers and, perhaps, a larger company to buy them out. They believe the product will be most successful under the umbrella of a company with existing supply and distribution chains.
For Ms. Collier, running a business does not seem as exciting as creating one.
In five years, she anticipates she will be working on her next idea -- whatever that might be -- and running a new startup.
"My life now, I don't do a lot of engineering," she said. "I don't sit here and do calculations and formulas. I call people and try to sell things. I almost stopped being an engineer when I started this company. Now, I'm a businesswoman."
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.
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