An Idaho businessman who created an ankle guard to protect athletes is finding an unexpected market in the elderly and chronically injured.
Chris Dean is selling his Ankle Roll Guard online, working with distributors, and is trying to get the guards into local sports stores and into the hands of medical suppliers.
It’s been 10 years since Dean was watching a professional basketball game in San Jose, Calif. with his brother when one of the players went down with an ankle injury. As the broadcast replayed the injury over and over, Dean realized a brace on the outside of the shoe could keep the ankle from rolling. He began making designs on the flight back to Boise.
“I just thought there had to be a way to stop that motion,” Dean said. “I play ball and I’ve rolled my ankles a dozen times each. When I got back I made a strap out of neoprene and used it to fasten a rubber ball so that it sat flush against the side of my shoe. At that point I was playing ball three times a week and it seemed like it was working.”
Dean, 47, had spent his career working in finance and business management since graduating with an MBA from San Jose University in 1994. He doesn’t have formal experience in sports medicine or design, but created his guard to help prevent himself from twisting an ankle playing basketball.
Dean’s early prototype inspired lots of comments from his fellow players; the most common was that it looked bulky. Still, Dean believed he was on to something and he filed for a patent in 2007. He received it in 2010.
Dean hired Tom Lukens, owner of F-Three Design Company in Seattle, to help him make the brace look sleeker. Lukens and Dean came up with a velcro guard that could be worn on either foot. Dean took the brace around to local sporting events such as the annual Bam Jam tournament in Boise, but prospective users balked at the guard’s appearance.
“I took it to the National Athletic Trainer Association conference in Las Vegas in 2012 and got good feedback from the trainers,” Dean said. “They said ‘functionally – it works, but it is ugly, to be blunt.’”
But connections he made through the conference helped him get a sit-down with McDavid, a large manufacturer of sportswear and braces. He heard concerns about the product’s appearance again, and McDavid told him to come back when he could prove there was a market.
“Young athletes don’t want to wear something that covers their shoe up and looks clunky,” said Eric Tamura, owner of Gridiron Rehab and Athletic Fitness, which sells Ankle Roll Guards.
Dean has paid for Ankle Roll Guard with $75,000 from the money he earns working as a sales operations manager at HP. After the meeting with McDavid and the trainers of the National Athletic Trainer Association, he asked himself if he wanted to continue. The answer: Yes.
“What’s kept me going is, I know it works,” Dean said. “I could have given it up after that 2012 show, but I kept feeling like I was so close.”
Dean once again worked with F-Three Design to make a sleeker model with a buttress that is smaller (the design that the company uses today) and ordered 3,000 units from a Chinese manufacturer to begin building the market he was told he needed.
The Ankle Roll Guard became available through Amazon and eBay in 2015 for about $35 and more than 700 have been ordered. Some of the sales have come from Dean’s original target market, but sales have been slow. Local high school athletes and sports leagues with frequent injuries are considering buying the gear for athletes as a preventative measure. He said an Idaho Falls volleyball club and the National Association of SlamBall are looking into the guard.
Some former college players and one professional basketball player, Heat player Beno Udrih, have asked to check the brace out, but league rules concerning apparel and logos have kept the guard out of games. Many of Dean’s sales have come from another population – the elderly and chronically injured.
Dean now has his product in the offices of physical therapists and podiatrists. The guard helps oft-injured patients such as elders with stretched and weak joints, patients with neurological disorders who have trouble balancing or feeling damage to their feet, and former athletes with injuries. These populations have to wear a brace for most of their activities and the Ankle Roll Guard’s light weight (2 ounces) and design make it a comfortable option.
“Most braces limit all motion with the idea of keeping the area stiff,” Tamura said. “When you walk around in the Ankle Roll Guard you don’t notice it. It provides you with a wider range of motion while still protecting what it needs to.”
Dean designed the Ankle Roll Guard with athletes in mind, but now that therapists have brought a new target market forward, he is trying to get the product carried by medical supply distributors.
“That was kind of organic growth,” Dean said. “I originally went to physical therapists as a target because I thought athletes would listen if the guard was prescribed.”
Dean is now considering his next move. He’s thought about approaching investors to scale the company, but he has also considered partnering with a sportswear company like Nike and has been invited back to meet with McDavid.
The Idaho Department of Commerce gave an IGEM grant worth $150,000 to Boise State University to study the potential of Dean’s product. Dr. Tyler Brown, director of the Center for Orthopedic and Biomechanics Research, will lead a team of students to build an apparatus to simulate ankle rolls and compare the Ankle Roll Guard to other braces.The research will begin next year, and the outcome could influence Dean’s next move.
“This could add a lot of validation to what I’m doing.” Dean said. “I’m excited about where this is going. When people see the brace they don’t say bulky anymore. They say it’s ‘different looking.'”