VibeTech could help astronauts

Sheboygan startup has found physical therapy success

The Spaceport Sheboygan team with astronaut Jeff Williams.

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:05 pm

Last month, astronaut Col. Jeff Williams came to Spaceport Sheboygan to test a device that could help prevent muscle atrophy and keep bones strong in space.

The device, VibeTech One, is made by Sheboygan startup VibeTech Inc. It works by exercising a seated user’s leg muscles to exhaustion in a process called strength training vibration therapy.

“He loved it,” said Jeff Leismer, founder and chief executive officer of VibeTech, about Williams’ experience with the device. “One of the biggest problems astronauts have is the ability to even get a workout for their fast twitch muscle fibers, which are the fibers used for strength and posture.

“It’s a new space that we’re in. We really try to capture the whole concept of providing effort-free treatments to provide the exercise response to the body.”

Ovation Chai Point resident Edith Silverstein uses VibeTech One with Alvin Arzaga.

VibeTech is actually a NASA spinoff company, developed using NASA data, but it still has to go through the usual channels to convince the agency to use its product. VibeTech is in the sixth of seven stages to demonstrate its countermeasure to disuse atrophy. Next up is the simulated microgravity component.

“If you can design something for astronauts and keep them strong in space, that’s wonderful,” Leismer said. “I look at that as a great test bed for developing things here on Earth.”

Founded in 2010, VibeTech now has four issued and nine pending patents on its proprietary technology. The units can be used in space, but also in several applications closer to Earth, such as physical therapy and the prevention of muscle atrophy and osteoporosis.

The VibeTech One unit already has found success in impaired physical mobility therapy applications in senior living communities, Leismer said. The company produced five units in its first production run, two of which are being used for research. Among the company’s direct users are Ovation Communities in Milwaukee and Rocky Knoll Health Care Center in Plymouth.

Ovation has two first generation VibeTech units, and they’re in use daily, said Badieh Widmer, director of rehab at the organization.

“We use them on probably 75 percent of our rehab folks and probably 60 percent on our outpatient,” Widmer said. “We use it for orthopedic cases, for pain management, and then we also use it on our Alzheimer’s/dementia patients for calming.”

Widmer said using the VibeTech creates a noticeable, reportable change in patients.

“I think you don’t realize it at the time; it’s afterwards that the benefits are felt,” she said.

VibeTech is about to roll out its second-generation VibeTech One unit, which Leismer described as a vibrating robotic leg press machine with three times the resistance and more range of motion than the first generation.

“The last system gave you 10 inches of travel back and forth. The new one gives you 15 inches of travel,” Leismer said.

The second generation of VibeTech One is web-enabled, opening up new avenues. A key feature is the ability to do patient assessments right on the machine, versus through a subjective manual muscle test admitted by the health care professional. And patient diagnostic codes, billing codes and medical history can be included in the analysis, so the cost of care is predictable – a big plus in today’s health care market.

With a web-enabled unit, VibeTech can do remote trainings for users, and the video screen can show a sort of virtual reality experience for the patient.

VibeTech has just two full-time employees and works with a handful of key vendors to engineer and manufacture its products.

The Spaceport Sheboygan team with astronaut Jeff Williams.

Those who have tested the second generation VibeTech One have demonstrated 10 to 40 percent improved range of motion, Leismer said.

“Anybody who gets less physical activity now than they did before, their bodies are in a state of disuse,” Leismer said. “Even sitting in front of a computer typing away, we’re not getting the physical activity we need.”

VibeTech has just switched to a rental model, in which health care providers pay-per-treatment for VibeTech sessions. VibeTech installs the unit at a facility and provides ongoing maintenance. The company using the unit pays VibeTech based on usage.

“Basically, it comes down to it’s a revenue sharing model that allows for a facility to start making money right from the get-go,” he said. “It allows for them not to have that large barrier to entry that they would have to absorb if they had a large purchase price. There are hefty margins built in for the facilities in order for them to start generating a good profit right away.”

The startup has raised a total of $2 million from investors over the course of several years. It has not yet reached break-even, but hopes to generate more revenue from the rental model.

“We’re going to raise a significant round of funding here that will allow us to build out fairly large quantities of products and start our pay-per-treatment model,” he said. “Facilities will be able to make money right from day one. The only problem is these machines are expensive to create.”

Sheboygan’s Alaark Tooling and Automation Inc. manufactures the VibeTech machines. The software is created by QuickSilver Controls Inc. in San Dimas, California.

“This is for anybody that’s moving less now than they used to,” Leismer said. “It could be due to aging, disability, general disuse.

“Exercise is the best medicine for everything. Now that we’ve figured out how to deliver exercise to everyone, let’s give access to everyone.”

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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