Faced with paralysis at the age of 17 and refusing to accept the mere three hours a day she was spending out of her wheelchair at rehab, Marissa Koscielski had an idea. She invented a walker that would allow her more movement, hoping the modifications on the existing design would help her recover faster and more fully.
Now 21 and studying at the University of Notre Dame, she’s taking her invention to others with the help of the University’s ESTEEM program, which is part of the IDEA Center.
“I want to empower and accelerate the entire rehabilitation plan and process, especially amputees because these patients just completely fall through the crack in the medical system,” said Koscielski. “If we can find a way to wrap our arms around them and empower them, so they mentally and physically can excel beyond their surgery, that would be incredible.”
She speaks from experience.
Due to a back injury in eighth grade, Koscielski started losing neurological functions when she turned 17. Paralyzed on her left side below her navel, she went to the Mayo Clinic for rehabilitation. Even surrounded by the best technology and equipment in the world, she only received three hours of rehab per day and had to spend the rest of her time in her wheelchair. Without enough motions every day, she felt her body was deteriorating quickly.
Holding the belief that her body could heal, she made some modifications to a standard walker so she could move independently with her compromised side. In this way, she was able to stand on her feet for eight hours a day and thus recovered eventually. Her invention impressed doctors at the clinic, who pointed out that the device was much needed among an amputee population that still relied on primitive technology.
With this seed planted in her mind, Koscielski joined the Master’s Program in Entrepreneurship, Technology and Innovation (ESTEEM) at Notre Dame to grow her business.
Koscielski’s project, Enlighten Mobility, has been gaining traction through the ESTEEM program. The company is eying a market size of 186,000 patients in the United States every year, particularly stroke patients and amputees whose condition was caused by diabetes, a population predicted to double by 2050.
Enlighten Mobility’s first prototype includes a “bike seat,” armrest, handler and allows amputees to activate their own muscles through weight bearing on the compromised limb through a gait trainer mechanism.
Koscielski intends to sell her device to rehabilitation centers or individual patients at affordable price, while also making it available to homecare clinics through a rental program.
What she’s really providing, Koscielski says, is hope.
“Patients may give up and put themselves in a wheelchair, accelerating the disease that caused the amputations in the first place. I hope we can intervene and challenge the status quo around rehab so much that we can counteract the physiological decline and get our patients better,” said Koscielski.
Getting Out of the Building
Launched in 2009, ESTEEM is a multi-disciplinary graduate program that equips students from technical backgrounds with the knowledge and skills to launch new ventures, become intrapreneurs within large corporations, and lead innovation teams in businesses of all sizes. At ESTEEM, each student is required to complete a capstone thesis project focused on commercializing a real-world innovation that is sponsored by industry partners, University faculty, or derived from a student’s own start-up idea.
All the projects receive support from the University, including a customized curriculum to develop a commercialization plan, financing and technical support and mentorship provided by proven executives or entrepreneurs.
Dr. James Schmiedeler, an Engineering professor at Notre Dame, serves as technical adviser for Enlighten Mobility and helps with equipment design. Dr. Matthew Leevy, a Biotechnology professor at Notre Dame and an entrepreneur himself, serves as thesis advisor and has also generated walker prototypes for the project from the Innovation Lab. Notre Dame’s law school students are assisting in filing a patent.
In keeping with ESTEEM’s principle of getting to know prospective customers and their needs, Koscielski dived into clinics as part of her patient-based and clinician-based approach in a bid to build solid relationships with patients and understand their needs.
“You have to be with your customers, your patients, and your people to understand what life is like for them in order to have good solutions. Once you have a good solution, you have to then put that in their hands. That is a crucial part of ESTEEM,” said Koscielski.
Koscielski has paired up with three big clinics, including the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, the University of Michigan Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic, through which she can access hundreds of amputees and figure out insurance coverage. In December, she is scheduled to meet 15 amputees at the Wexner Medical Center to analyze the first prototype.
“We want to make sure physiologically the patients are excited to use it. Right now, we have great feedback, and everyone is eager to get their hands on it,” said Koscielski.
Girl Power in Entrepreneurship
In ESTEEM’s 2018 class, 18 female students account for 41 percent of the entire class.
As a female entrepreneur, Koscielski said that “it would be really cool to get more females in ESTEEM to collaborate with and really just empower each other through the process.” She personally has benefited from talking to Gaylene Anderson, a Notre Dame alumna who achieved success in the field of medical entrepreneurship.
“No matter what gender you are, if you have the passion, if you have an idea and if you are ready to go with it, then just do it,” said Koscielski. “I am extraordinarily ambitious, and I always strive to do things differently than others and make an impact. My path never takes me down the conventional route.”
Moving Enlighten Mobility Forward
Koscielski’s goal is to get her first product to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) phase before she graduates. To achieve this, she needs to complete financing, patent filing and put the finishing touches on her product. Generally, it takes two years to finish the FDA process, so she hopes her walker will be launched in 2019. She also plans to roll out a series of new devices next, including a similar device that incorporates functional electrical stimulation within the limb for neurologic deficit patients and devices tailor-made for full-time users. Other projects she’s involved in are Gigil, a subcutaneous tissue injection stabilizer that assists patients who must administer self-injections at home, and Navahealth, a healthcare organization that facilitates long-term relationships between patients of low socioeconomic status and primary care physicians.
All three projects are led and managed by women at ESTEEM and will be featured at this year’s McCloskey New Venture Competition at Notre Dame in April.
“I am excited and passionate for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship keeps me going,” said Koscielski.