By Monica Mendoza
Three months ago, Kevin Maher set up his Gyrostim multi-axis rotating chair at Life University in Georgia. Dr. Ted Carrick, a leading chiropractic neurologist, demonstrated the chair’s potential use in a number of physical rehabilitation treatments.
Maher watched as the chair spun around and the chiropractic neurologists discussed how it could be used to stimulate the vestibular system — that system that controls information from the ears, eyes, muscles and joints and adjusts heart rate and blood pressure.
He had built the chair for his daughter out of sheer desperation. He never dreamed he would be at a conference at a chiropractic university watching practitioners discuss its possible applications in their field.
“It all started with being faced with a big problem for a little girl,” said Maher, president and CEO of Ultrathera Technologies, a life-sciences company in Colorado Springs.
Twelve years ago Maher and his wife Rhonda brought home their second baby girl, Mackenzie. Over the next 10 months they noticed issues that indicated trouble: she wasn’t crawling and seemed to have little control over her arms and legs. Just before she turned 1, Mackenzie was diagnosed with the brain injury periventricular leukomalacia, which almost always causes cerebral palsy. Doctors presented a future of little hope and one even said that Mackenzie would likely be institutionalized.
The Mahers wouldn’t have it. They found a treatment program that took them to Minnesota every six months and required intense therapy but which helped. By age four, Mackenzie was showing real progress. But, she still had trouble with balance and couldn’t sit in a booster chair without falling over. She needed vestibular rehabilitation therapy.
Therapists recommended 320 chair spins daily in both directions, 320 log rolls and 320 summersaults, forward and backward. Doing so would help reconnect her neuropathways. So every day, the Mahers rolled Mackenzie down a piece of carpeted plywood — up and down about 900 times.
Then, one day, Maher, an engineer with a background in semiconductor manufacturing, had a vision of a contraption that could hold his daughter and allow her to roll around. He grabbed her infant car seat, added giant wheels to all sides and built a little rolling and spinning machine. Away she went, laughing and smiling all the way down the hallway of their home.
“By the end of two weeks, we noticed her creeping and crawling had improved dramatically,” Maher said. “She never fell out of that booster seat again.”
Maher got excited; he made other devices that could make the other spinning motions recommended by therapists. In his basement, in 2006, he made his first multi-axis rotating balance training machine that combined all the motions. Mackenzie strapped in the chair, just like a car seat, and the chair spun in circles forward and backward and side to side.
“Her trunk control improved, her breast support improved, her speech improved and her general attitude would pick up,” Maher said. “It really felt good to her.”
And so, in 2008, Maher launched Ultrathera Technologies and entered the highly competitive medical device market. He sold one machine for $97,275. His first customer was the U.S. Air Force Academy, who wanted the spinning, rotating chair to help prepare cadets for motion sickness.
Maher sold a few other devices he had developed, including an interactive handwriting system, but the going was slow. With just one employee, he hung on. In 2009, he sold a second chair to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., for $120,000. Despite that sale, he still has not taken a paycheck from his small business.
Now, with the testing of the Gyrostim chair at Life University, he feels certain that the chair is ready to take off.
The Gyrostim is far more sophisticated than the one he built in the basement. It is automated, so that it stores profiles of its users including data such as speed, duration and number of spins. It can be operated by a wireless joystick or by a preprogrammed computer and it provides precise controlled amounts of stimulation. It’s quiet and smooth, and stands 7 feet, 2 inches high.
Researchers at Life University have set up a variety of trials. And while the studies have just begun, Maher is confident the spinning, turning machine works.
Mackenzie is 12 now. She walks using canes. She is a straight “A” student and was twice voted as class representative by her classmates.