Few business stories start with tragedy, but such is the case of Mike “Monster” Schultz, founder of Biodapt
, a prosthetics company based in St. Cloud.
Schultz began racing snowmobiles around age 17; he turned professional in 2003 and traveled all over the country to race. At his peak in 2007, he was in the top five in the United States. That all changed in December 2008, when Schultz suffered an accident at the International Series of Champions race in Michigan. After being launched off his snowmobile, his left knee hyperextended almost 180 degrees; everything under the knee joint was shattered and the main nerve in his leg was severed. Doctors tried to repair the leg but ultimately amputated it.
“That was a pretty bad weekend,” Schultz says.
William “Chip” Taylor, a certified prosthetist with Prosthetic Laboratories
, saw Schultz four weeks after the amputation. Prosthetists are not doctors but work with patients to evaluate, design, and fit artificial limbs. Schultz was walking with a basic above-the-knee model six weeks after his accident, an unusually quick turnaround given the insurance industry’s slow-moving approval process. Still, the limb left a lot to be desired. Made for daily activities like standing and walking, it wasn’t sufficient for someone active in extreme sports, like Schultz.
“Most of the products on the market are built by large companies,” Taylor explains. “They have to appeal to the masses and the majority of the above-the-knee amputees that can potentially benefit from the product. I often will try to provide the patient with a good initial starting system understanding the fact that their activities will improve and in another couple of months or a year or two, we can upgrade.”
Schultz was eager to do just that, but he soon realized that if he wanted to perform anywhere near the competitive level he was at previously, he would have to design his own prosthesis.
“I had two real passions in my life: competition and fabrication,” Schultz says. A mechanically minded person, he began working on the first prototype of what would become the Moto Knee. The project “had another reason as well: to keep me occupied. Instead of thinking about what things I couldn’t do, I was going to be productive and move forward and build myself another leg,” he says.
The new limb allowed Schultz to participate in the 2009 X Games, where he medaled in the Adaptive Moto X race. “That was the first time I’d been around amputees,” he says of the competition. He took notice of the prostheses other athletes were using but “nobody had anything that really looked great.” Given how well the Moto Knee was working, the wheels started turning. “I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete anymore,” he says. “I needed to figure out a better career path.”
Over the next year-and-a-half, Schultz refined the Moto Knee so it would be as versatile for as many sports as possible: everything from snowboarding to wakeboarding to skiing to skydiving. After substantial R&D time, he asked a few amputees to try out the Moto Knee and give him feedback. The trial wearers loved the product.
“Word traveled fast from there,” Schultz says. Media stories raised the company’s profile, and Popular Science
named Biodapt’s second product, the Versa Foot, one of 2013’s Inventions of the Year.
“I’m not into the conventional marketing in paying for magazine and catalog ads,” Schultz says. “[Instead] I’m doing all these adaptive events and going through the adaptive network on social media and on the web. People who are looking for active prosthetic equipment are really searching for it.”
The Moto Knee is one-size-fits-all but is adjusted internally depending on the patient’s weight and activity. The Versa Foot has some customized components, requiring some back-and-forth with purchasers to ensure the proper fit. “It’s not something that they go to my website and click and order,” Schultz says. “We have a conversation and talk through what they want to use the equipment for.” He personally attends to about one-third of his customers; the others order the Moto Knee or Versa Foot through their prosthetists. Two machine shops make the products’ parts according to Schultz’s specs, and he assembles them in a business building on his home property.
The biggest challenge for Schultz, who currently has only one part-time employee, has been juggling the day-to-day tasks of managing insurance, working with vendors, and understanding taxes. “I had no experience running a business before this, and I had no classes, so I’m learning as I go,” he says. His mother, who owns a small business, has offered advice, as have friends in manufacturing.
Convincing insurers to cover the costs of the Moto Knee (which runs around $6,000) and the Versa Foot (around $2,300) can also be a struggle. Insurance does not generally cover prostheses like these because they fall under the “recreational use” umbrella. In some cases, however, wounded veterans have had luck getting the VA to pay for them.
Taylor, who has referred about a dozen patients to Biodapt, would like to see the policies around prostheses change. “A real issue with American health care is that they pay for basic components or components that would be used for work activities and often frown on paying for recreational-based activities even though it would promote better health and, in the long run, would be more cost effective for the insurance carrier.” If patients are active, they won’t cost insurance companies as much in the long run as a sedentary person. Exercise equals better physical and mental health for all people, not just amputees.
Those who can, pay out-of-pocket. And Schultz isn’t letting insurance industry politics slow him down.
“My ultimate business goal is to build the most cutting-edge, high-activity prosthetic equipment,” he says. “I want to be the company that active amputees search out to get the equipment they need to live a happier, healthy lifestyle.”