Morgan Kerfeld wants to reinvent the wheeled devices many people use to help maintain stability while walking and at the same time revolutionize an industry that hasn’t changed much in more than 40 years.
“This was an area that hadn’t seen a lot of innovation since the initial development of the rollator walker in the 1970s,” she says. “There was a lot of room for improvement.”
As a student in the Carlson School of Management’s Entrepreneurship in Action class in the fall of 2020, Kerfeld, ’21, B.S.B., and three of her classmates founded health tech firm Telo. They built their business plan around a reimagined rollator walker. Telo was one of the winners of the 2022 MN Cup competition.
Traditional walkers, designed to be pushed in front of the user, are notorious for contributing to the risk of falls. The team’s new design would allow users to sit or stand, mitigating the risk of falling because the design supports the back and cannot roll ahead of users.
“It’s also about dignity,” Kerfeld says. “Our device is sleek and operated from behind the user, so the person is seen before the device. I think that’s huge for people striving to be seen for their personality rather than as someone who struggles with mobility.”
A winning idea
The inspiration for the reconfigured walker came from one of Telo’s cofounders, Steven Bleau, ’21 B.S. He grew up seeing how important such devices were to his father, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), a condition that often leads to mobility complications.
As a product design student in the College of Design, Bleau brought ideas for prototypes based on a capstone project to the group. With advice and support from advisors within and outside of the University of Minnesota, the team built its first walker using PVC piping, which is inexpensive and easy to heat and bend.
They began entering competitions. Telo placed in the top five at the University of St. Thomas’ e-Fest undergraduate entrepreneurship competition, which provided a cash prize. “It was our first outside funding,” Kerfeld says. They later took first in the startup division of the U of M/Mayo Clinic Walleye Tank Competition. Then, during the summer of 2021, they placed second in the student division of MN Cup.
Last summer, they returned to MN Cup and won the general division. “That’s the big league,” Kerfeld says, adding that it was a sign that Telo had made the transition from a student project to a real company. MN Cup is funded by gifts from U of M donors, including the Carlson Family Foundation.
“Getting funding as young people is tricky because, at this point in our lives, we have the least amount of risk, but also the least number of resources,” she says. “Telo simply wouldn’t exist without the Carlson Family Foundation, Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship, and MN Cup.”
The next step
The cofounders used their prize money, along with a Launch Minnesota Innovation Grant, to test their product with physical therapists and users, including Bleau’s father. “We learned a lot in terms of maneuverability, weight of the device, being able to transport it,” Kerfeld says. They’re also working on accessories such as building in a cup holder. “That’s always a top recommendation,” Kerfeld says of users who see the design.
The Telo rollator walker is now being made out of lightweight aluminum. It also has app-based features that can track user activity, help people set mobility goals, and facilitate remote patient monitoring.
Although they are producing a handful of devices in a maker space and talking to outside manufacturing firms, Kerfeld says they have shifted Telo’s product focus slightly. “The rollator walker is what we’re working toward, but it’s more difficult to bring to market than we once envisioned,” she says. She adds that they’re working on securing grants and other sources of funding to help make the product a reality.
Telo’s first product will be a set of walking canes that are a cross between a traditional cane and trekking poles. Kerfeld says they’re working with the national Multiple Sclerosis Society to unveil the cane and the walker prototype at Walk MS events in Minnesota this spring.
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