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3-D printing meets crowdfunding in new device to relieve back pain

New ProductsKickstartereBay Inc.Johns Hopkins University

When Gene Shirokobrod's patients started asking the doctor of physical therapy to come home with them, he decided to find a product to recommend as an alternative for help with back and neck pain.

But he couldn't find any product he thought was good enough to recommend, so he set out to make something. Shirokobrod reached out to Corey Fleischer, a mechanical engineer and co-founder of the Baltimore Foundery, to help him create the ARC, a product to relieve back and neck pain and retrain muscle.

The two developed a prototype of the ARC, a half-circle made of plastic that sits between the user and a chair or can sit underneath someone's neck while they are lying down, using a blend of the latest hot entrepreneurial strategies — 3-D printing, crowdfunding and the makerspace.

"It's wild to get this idea that's been in my head ... and hold it, it's a very surreal feeling," Shirokobrod said.

Shirokobrod and Fleischer met through the Foundery, a downtown nonprofit that provides tools and training for people who want to create products. Co-founder Jason Hardebeck said he thinks the makerspace is a catalyst for other projects like theirs as well.

"We would like to be a catalyst for other similar products in the future," Hardebeck said.

The ARC is the first successfully crowdfunded project to come out of the Foundery, Hardebeck said. Shirokobrod and Fleischer created a Kickstarter page for the product, showing photos of the prototype and offering the item to supporters. They raised more than $30,000 between the beginning of May and June 15, $10,000 over their goal.

The Kickstarter wouldn't have been successful without the prototype the two made through 3-D printing, Fleischer said

"Both crowdfunding and 3-D printing make the world of starting a new business ... pretty simple," said Sean Carr, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, who recently completed a study on crowdfunding.

Carr said he hasn't heard of many health care products using crowdfunding, probably because of the regulations in the field, but that using crowdfunding is "certainly viable for health care products if they don't require oversight to get funded."

Shirokobrod and Fleischer's work will go beyond just the health care product they launched on Kickstarter; the pair hit it off during their work on ARC and plan to create other products together.

They formed a startup, Verve LLC, and have several concepts they are working on now, Fleischer said.

"Our hope is that we evolve into a resource center where people can trust our information and rely on us for help with products," Shirokobrod said. "We want to provide solutions for everyday problems for people."

The market is flush with products for back and neck pain, said Akhil Chhatre, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Still, Chhatre said he thinks the ARC is a "fresh take" and that "it's great to have a product out there for your lower back."

He added, however, that it's important to use the product in conjunction with exercising, having good posture while standing, not smoking and doing other activities for spine care.

"If it helps the way you sit or stand ... use it incrementally or in the right application," Chhatre said about the ARC and all other back and neck pain products. "I would recommend it, but I would recommend it in coalition with other things."

When Shirokobrod and Fleischer set out to make ARC, the two wanted to make sure it was made in the U.S. and be cost-effective. The ARC will start at $49.99, selling over the Internet on Amazon, eBay and the Verve website, and the two are communicating with a California-based manufacturer about making 4,000 of them by fall.

The pair's work on weekends and after their kids went to bed on weeknights differs from what Fleischer is used to doing during the day as a mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin. Fleischer describes himself as curious by nature and said he became interested in the problem when Shirokobrod described it to him.

"You kind of get obsessed with tweaking the problem," he said."It's been a really cool problem; it's just been a lot of fun."

Fleischer came up with about 15 designs and used the 3-D printer to make prototypes of about half of them until finding one made of different kind of plastics that worked for them.

Fleischer and Shirokobrod want to assemble the first couple 1,000 products themselves for "quality control," Shirokobrod said, as the two "feel very strongly about the product."

Customer service is important to the two entrepreneurs, so they are making an effort to build relationships with their Kickstarter backers by keeping them updated throughout the process and getting feedback from them on how ARC works.

Though Carr hasn't seen many health care products using crowdfunding thus far, he said it's entirely possible that there will be more in the future.

"We're seeing now more of a specialization in the crowdfunding space," Carr said. "It wouldn't surprise me if as we go down the road ... that there would be crowdfunding platforms in the medical development field."

dmking@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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