Her clients might not walk the red carpet donning her creations, but Kelly Collier, 25, founder and CEO of ActivAided Orthotics has a loyal following of more than 500 customers, including Harrison Ruopp, a defenseman with the Pittsburgh Penguin organization.
Collier’s efforts enabled her to collect honors as the U. S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Western Pennsylvania Young Entrepreneur of the Year for a design that revamped the traditional rigid back brace into a functional, flexible shirt.
“It [this award] is pretty amazing,” Collier said. “It’s a big testament to the many mentors and advisors who have helped me develop my products.”
An avid swimmer, Collier’s back pain problems became the catalyst for the project which was developed by a physician Dr. Gary Chimes, Collier and her peers as a senior project at Carnegie Mellon University. Unlike her classmates, Collier gave herself additional homework when she incorporated the assignment into a post-graduate business.
The West Mifflin area entrepreneur, who always did well in school, found she was on pins and needles when developing the product prototype. “The only B’s I ever received were in home economics, so it took me about 15 hours to personally stitch each of the first five prototypes using my mom’s sewing machine,” she stated.
Her prototype enabled Collier to utilize Pittsburgh’s AlphaLab accelerators, funded in part through SBA grants, to grow her business. SBA funding helps ensure that local manufacturers are equipped to handle the supply-chain needs of new companies housed at the AlphaLab accelerators.
“Kelly is the type of entrepreneur we love to see come into AlphaLab and grow after completing our training program,” said Jim Jen, director. “Kelly’s business has gone from a rough prototype, which was a college project, into a dynamic, growing company with medical distributors all over the country.”
Collier said the posture-corrective shirt enables the body to naturally align the spine leading to better posture resulting in less pain, a better appearance, confidence and breathing.
Ruopp, who at the start of the hockey season experienced a lot of back pain, was told by a physician he would need a back brace. Ruopp said his first reaction was “Whoa!” -- until he saw the shirt. “It’s stylish, not restrictive and I could put it on and go out,” he said.
“I have poor posture from playing hockey and working on our grain farm back home, but, wearing the shirt for a few hours a day personally helped me.”
"The shirt and its correction straps, stabilization belt and posture panel is comprehensive and targets the lower back and shoulders, it focuses on total alignment of the spine,” Collier explained. “It’s an undershirt but it rehabilitates the back – it’s not restrictive or immobilizing, but more of a performance sportswear shirt worn a few hours a day.”
Ruopp said the straps on the shoulders helped straighten his torso upright.
Collier added running a business is more difficult for her than obtaining degrees in biomedical engineering and materials science. “This is real-world responsibilities and the stakes are higher,” Collier exclaimed. “But when patients, like Ruopp, love and appreciate the product, it makes the hard work worth it.”
According to Kevin White, Pittsburgh SBA acting district director, Collier is an entrepreneur who saw herself as the solution to a problem. “Her back problems led her to turn this project into a business that helps correct posture in a non-restrictive form,” White said. “It’s incredible that a simple shirt will be able to help so many athletes plagued by back pain.”
Once she receives her award, Collier, will be doing more than just thanking her peers and mentors – she’s inviting them to a free physical medicine symposium hosted by her.
“I will be speaking about treatment through innovation and will preview prototypes of our newest products: a device that stabilizes and balances hip muscles along with a sock that designed to rehabilitate Achilles Tendinopathy,” Collier explained. “James Lomuscio of Hability is discussing provider-patient relationships, while Bob Wanovich from Highmark is addressing reimbursement which pays for value and efficient patient care.”