Physical therapist Akiva Schmidman, of Pikesville, invented the BeActive brace to relieve lower back pain. The marketing firm Top Dog Direct will begin airing TV commercials for the device this summer. (Submitted photo / June 5, 2014)

Last year, Akiva Schmidman came to a crossroads. He had invented a product, developed a prototype and hired a lawyer to patent it. He had tried to market it himself and had limited success. Schmidman was either going to give up his dream or find another route to the potential pot of gold.

"I had to decide if I would manufacture it myself or license it to someone," Schmidman, a Pikesville resident, said of his product, a medical device for lower back pain he calls the BeActive Brace.

Schmidman, 35-years old, is a physical therapist with his own private practice. "It's hard to take a product to mass market. I didn't have the capability or the money," said Schmidman married and the father of six children.

Then he heard about Top Dog Direct, a Philadelphia, Pa., marketing firm that specializes in "as seen on TV" products. After a screening process, Schmidman traveled there last March for a two-minute "speed pitch" before a three-member panel.

He joined 30 other inventors from around the country who were demonstrating their products, among them sunglasses with a hidden compartment in the frame and an in-car trash holder.

As it happened, one of the panelists suffered from lower back pain. She put on the BeActive Brace Schmidman had brought and, proof of his claim, experienced almost instant relief, Schliemann said. It almost goes without saying that Top Dog Direct accepted Schmidman as a client, the deal being it takes over the manufacture, distribution and marketing of the brace and he gets a royalty on sales.

Schmidman is delighted. "I'd gone as far as I could go," he said.

An estimated 80 percent of all Americans suffer from lower back pain at some point in their lives. "But there is only so much you can do for a chronic condition. You can relieve symptoms temporarily but not permanently," said Schmidman, who, in his work with patients, made an interesting discovery.

Schmidman found a tender point on patients' calves, a muscle behind the knee. When he applied pressure, the patient felt relief that lasted for several hours after leaving the office.

"I thought, 'I can make this into a product,'" he remembered, although it took nearly 10 years of researching anatomy and experimenting with materials and designs before he developed the BeActive Brace.

The $19.99 brace is made of stretchy black neoprene in the shape of a sleeve that slides over the leg. A pocket in the sleeve holds a foam core pressure point; straps tighten the sleeve to the leg. The product can be used on the right or left leg, depending on the source of pain. The pressure on the calf muscle relaxes neural tension up the sciatic nerve.

As obvious as the device sounds, he says no one had thought of it before.

"There's a lot of innovation in clinical practice but medical braces haven't changed in 20 years," said Schmidman, who, despite interest from some brace manufacturers, managed to place his product only in Seven Mile Market, a kosher grocery store in Baltimore City.

Ben Jakob, a chiropractor with his own practice, Distinct Pain Solution, in Pikesville, has been using the BeActive Brace for about two years. Patients can use one of the several BeActive braces he keeps in his office or buy one from him for use at home.

"I treat back pain for a living. Anything I can get my hands on to help patients, I will," Jakob said. While he cautions that "nothing works on everyone," he finds that "for different types of pain, the brace works more often than it doesn't."

Steve Silbiger, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Top Dog Direct, invests in five to six products per year, spending $3 to $4 million on each for television commercials alone. "We do the TV commercials, 800 phone numbers, Internet marketing," he said, and all for the purpose of establishing the "brand."

At the same time, Top Dog Direct talks to retailers, where it can sell five to 10 times more of the product in their stores than it will through TV. Top Dog Direct successes include Tag Away, for skin tag removal; Steam Clean, for pet stains; and NightView NV, night vision glasses.

"Akiva had the trademark, the product, the name. We tried it out and it produced relief," Silbiger said.

As for Shmidman, he is under the impression the TV commercials will begin this summer although he doesn't have a definite date. A lot is riding on a positive public response. If successful, Top Dog Direct will proceed with its contacts in the retail market.

"They think BeActive Brace has mass market appeal. They think they can get it in stores like Walgreens," Shmidman said. "As an inventor, it's been a learning experience."