Name & Age: Jerome Rifkin, 41
Location: Boulder, Colorado
What he does: Rifkin is the founder and CTO of FitBionic (formerly Tensegrity Prosthetics) and creator of a state-of-the-art prosthetic foot for amputees. Rifkin says other prosthetic feet are based on technology that dates back more than 30 years. But his Series 3 Foot has a joint that absorbs bumps and mimics the reaction a natural foot has to uneven ground.
"Our ankles are very stout and we don't notice that our knee is largely unaffected by stepping on different terrain or crossing slopes or changing from linoleum to carpeting or flooring," Rifkin says.
But his foot reacts to changing conditions and the wearer always feels firmly connected to the ground, something he says is lacking in older prosthetic technology. "This allows people to be comfortable while walking or standing," Rifkin says.
How he started: A bicycle accident changed everything for Rifkin, a biomedical engineer. "I was unusually well qualified to do something that no one else was doing," Rifkin says. "I was very passionate about the subject after my recovery from a femur fracture while I was learning to walk again."
Rifkin spent several years developing the foot in his spare time while he continued to work his day job. Once he received grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, he was able to work full-time to bring his prosthetic foot to market.
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Why he's a Game Changer: Rifkin's prosthetic foot makes it easier for amputees to live an active life. "Just because someone loses a limb doesn't mean they should consign themselves to a wheelchair and wait for the next amputation," Rifkin says. "We can help them turn their lives around."
Rifkin says the prosthetic market is under-served partly because of the age of many amputees. "A lot of amputees tend to be the elderly, who don't move around very well and don't get out in the public, so people don't realize they have significant needs," Rifkin says. "It's a case of the silent majority."
And he adds that the need for new and improved prosthetics will only get larger as the population ages and is more at risk for diabetes, a leading cause of amputations.
What's next: Rifkin and his team continue to work together to get the word out to prosthetists, the healthcare professionals who match amputees with artificial limbs, about the ease of fitting and adjusting to the Series 3 Foot.
And there is the possibility of developing other prosthetics. "I have some designs for a knee that I look forward to pursuing," Rifkin says.
With an eye on growth, the company has recently rebranded itself and brought on Eythor Bender, an orthopedics and bionics expert, as CEO.
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Advice to other entrepreneurs: "Form a team sooner rather than later," Rifkin says. "Think about where you are in your process and what skills you really need. Try to recruit team members that have those skills and unite them around the vision of the company rather than paychecks because the internal motivation is worth so much more."
Meet more inspiring entrepreneurs in our Game Changers series.
Carla Turchetti is a veteran print and broadcast journalist who likes to break a topic down and keep her copy tight. That's why this bio is so brief!
Photos from top: Getty Images, Courtesy of FitBionic