SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Ian Engelman arrived at his office Tuesday morning and poured black polyurethane into a mold, spilling some onto layers of protective cardboard covering a table but filling the 7-inch, nose-shaped vessel to create a skateboard brake.
When it sets, Engelman will attach the device to his “longboard,” allowing him to slow for traffic as he glides down Munjoy Hill along Congress Street.
The skateboard brake is a prototype — only Engelman, 53, and his son use them so far. But just outside his office, his employees are navigating mounds of plaster dust to mold, measure, glue, rivet, file and cut to create Engelman’s most successful creation to date, the Step Smart Brace, a patented brace designed for people with “drop foot,” a secondary condition brought on by multiple sclerosis, diabetes or stroke, among other ailments.
Standard braces are “unnecessarily cumbersome,” restrictive and bulky, Engelman said.
Engelman, who studied engineering and is a certified prosthetist and orthotist, said he wondered, “You know what? If I put the joint right here on this bone, it’s a problem. But if I move it up here — that single thing was the thing that gave me the patent. I saw there was a need, and I knew I could do it better than the competition because of the more effective design.”
Like the company’s Blaze Brace, for “medial column breakdown” (flatfoot), the Step Smart is significantly smaller than traditional braces and designed to be worn under clothing.
Braces are sold “off the shelf” on the company’s website or on Amazon, or are custom-made using a model taken by a practitioner and sent to Insightful Products.
“We have people who come in here and try ours, and they can’t believe they’ve been suffering for 20 years,” Engelman said, wielding a silver butter knife to modify a plaster model of a human foot to custom measurements.
Once the mold is modified to the patient, formable plastic is heated and vacuum-formed to the cast, cut off the cast, and finished. Pads and straps are added and the brace is sent to the clinician.
Among other modified mechanics used to fashion the braces is a large, green steel machine Engelman salvaged from the Knapp Shoe factory in Lewiston when it closed nearly a decade ago. He was there, he said, the day the mill closed, trying to find investors for his “spring shoe.”
The “clicker” machine from Lewiston has been modified to stamp out forms used in the brace, according to Ryan Applin of Saco, who works as a technician.
“Every day is different,” Applin said. “We all have about four things going on.”
Bending the boundaries
Engleman started practicing right out of graduate school and says now that for 20 years as a clinician, working “shoulder to shoulder” with other clinicians, he was thinking there must be a better brace, and wondering how it might be built.
“Psychologically, my mind was constrained in a way I couldn’t even understand,” he said. “As a clinician I was always the one to try new things, to bend the boundaries of what was an acceptable version of a brace. I was considered the clinician who was too risky. But when I broke out and started working by myself, all of a sudden I had an epiphany: I don’t need to put the anatomical joint where they teach it in school. I can put it over here and have all these advantages.”
In 2002, Engelman patented the Funnel, an innovative shoehorn.
Made of polyethylene and long, black laces, the purple device fits over the top back of a shoe, allowing wearers to put their foot down, slip their foot in, and pull the Funnel up and out without bending over.
Not all of his designs have been successful. Picking up a modified running shoe that could be straight from a science fiction movie, Engelman said he proved in 2009 that the “spring shoe” could “make a human ambulate more efficiently” — i.e., walk better.
But he was unable to attract investors and let the international patent lapse, following his credo, “fail fast, fail cheap.”
“Someday someone is going to make a lot of money on it,” he said. “It’s not going to be me.”
In fact, in a January article in Lower Extremity Review, Engleman proposes an entirely new vocabulary to describe the pathologies and better distinguish them.
The article proposes a whole new language, because the existing language “can restrain perspective and lead us in the wrong direction.”
“Before now, everybody would just use one word to describe all five pathologies,” he said. ”I decided that was not as helpful as it could be — it was better to have five words to describe five pathologies.”
“The interaction between thought and language is well-studied,” Engelman wrote. “A linguist can explain how language can limit our thoughts and understanding: Sometimes, it takes a new language and a new tool to break through these limitations. … Better and more specific terms lead to better, more specific understanding of the origin of the pathological condition.”
Not everyone is on board yet, he said.
“I do get a lot of, ‘Hey, that’s not right. You can’t do that.’”
Next for Insightful Products is three-dimensional printing and a knee brace. Engelman has not patented the knee brace design, he said, “because there’s no sense putting money into a patent if you’re not going to have a product ready to sell.”
“I’ve solved this problem,” he said. “I want to go on to the next problem.”
Solved enough, in fact, that that the brace has sold in all 50 states and around the world — including The Vatican.
“They ordered a second pair, so I guess they liked them,” he said.
And maybe a patent for the skateboard brake — but maybe not, he said, because patents are expensive.
Is he worried about someone stealing the design?
“Yes, but what am I gonna do, not do it?” he said. “I used to be more paranoid than I am now. But I recognize now that the idea is the easy part. The hard part is making that product into money.”
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.