One entrepreneur’s commitment to restoring mobility in the lives of the aging

6 minute read

John, an Oregon resident, lives with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects mobility. Those with Parkinson’s experience a range of symptoms, often beginning with tremors, loss of balance or stiffness. In John’s case the disease causes him to freeze in place while walking. With an inability to place one foot in front of the other, in these moments, John has learned that he must drop to the floor and crawl around his house to get from room to room. 

John’s symptom, “freezing of gait,” is described by the American Parkinson Disease Association, as “sudden, short and temporary episodes of an inability to move the feet forward despite the intention to walk.” And, incredibly, the research is out there to prove that with simple visual and auditory cues the blockage occuring in the brain can be bypassed so that John, and others with freezing of gait, can continue to move forward. Cues like this are used in physical therapists’ offices, often by way of duck tape lines across the floor. But, for people like John, once they’ve left the physical therapist appointment or the doctor’s office and gone home, the problem returns.

What may seem obvious, is that John needed a device to use at home — something that would drastically alter his quality of life. But, too often we see large gaps in the needs of the aging and the investment modern technology has made in them. In an era where everything seems to be about the next sexy device for twenty-somethings or the hottest app for high schoolers, who is paying attention to the technological needs of an often forgotten but rapidly growing demographic? Luckily, one woman was motivated to focus on the need, and today John has the device that changed his life and is walking around his home for the first time in years.

The NexStride, a non-intrusive medical device designed to bring mobility back into the lives of those with Parkinson’s disease, was born into existence in Sidney Collin’s senior year of her biomedical engineering degree at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. 

At the time, the project was small-scale and its intentions were modest — to better the life of Jack, a veteran residing in San Luis Obispo County, who suffers from freezing of gait.  

“[I] have always been kind of obsessed with understanding how the brain and the body work, and how they interact,” Collin said. “So, when I met Jack and learned more about the symptom he was having— freezing of gait— I was just fascinated by the symptom and the possible solutions” 

As Collin dug deeper into the research she learned more about the root cause: a disconnect between the brain and the body that makes it so that brain signals sent to initiate movement never reach the motor neurons that activate the muscles. According to Collin, Jack describes the sensation “as feeling like his feet are glued to the floor or stuck in a box of cement.” 

“As I started to look into the research, what I found is that you can actually use external non-invasive visual and auditory cues to change the way that you think about that movement, which changes the neural pathway in the brain that is being activated [and] allows you to bypass the neural circuits that are causing freezing of gait and be able to restore mobility,” Collin explained “As a brain research nerd, this was just fascinating to me, this whole idea, and the more I learned about it the more frustrated I became that this technology, as simple as it is, didn’t exist already in the world.”

I think that bridging the gap between what exists in the research world and what is available for people to use today is something that is important and that’s why I put my research career on hold to make this happen.”

-Sidney Collin, CEO and Co-founder of De Oro Devices

Collin’s observation and frustration about the lack of innovation for people like John or Jack, is not as isolated of a circumstance as it may seem. In fact, for years, the rapidly aging population has been regarded as one of the largest untapped markets in the country. By 2060, “one in four Americans will be 65 years and older, the number of 85-plus will triple, and the country will add a half million centenarians,” according to a 2018 article by the Census Bureau. 

In the fall of 2020, an article by Rock Health, a digital health dedicated venture fund, discussed the “unprecedented market for aging in place” as society’s historical solutions (i.e. national health expenditures and social security) become more and more strained and the cost of care continues to rise. Additionally, the past year and a half and the lasting effects of the pandemic have more than likely changed the course of aging for good as it is expected that far less people will willingly return to care facilities. This forced period of isolation also encouraged rapid technology adoption as it became the only choice to stay connected.  “We anticipate a growing appetite for solutions that enable older adults to age in place,” the article stated. “As investors, we see a unique opportunity for technology to close the gap.”

Eventually, Collin’s determination to help Jack evolved into a tangible non-invasive medical device that simply clips onto a walker, cane or walking poles and that gave Jack his freedom back. He could finally move without fear of freezing. 

However, it was Jack that convinced Collin that this device could and should be more than a one-off project. He introduced her to twenty or thirty more members of the SLO community that needed this product and Collin’s help. 

Photo courtesy of Sidney Collin.

“I was very reluctant to start a company out of it,” she said. “Jack had to do some convincing for me to even pursue anything past what I was working on with him.”

Yet, with Jack’s encouragement and in response to what seemed like such a ridiculous hole in medical devices on the market, Collin applied and was accepted to the San Luis Obispo HotHouse accelerator program. In the fall of 2018, only six months before college graduation, the self-proclaimed research nerd became the founder of De Oro devices and she had their first product: NexStride. 

“I think that people like to stay in their lanes. There’s the research people — they all know that this is effective, this isn’t anything new — but they’re not going to make a device, they’re going to keep doing research, that’s their job. And then the physical therapists, they’re doing their job. They’re helping people the best that they can but I think that bridging the gap between what exists in the research world and what is available for people to use today is something that is important and that’s why I put my research career on hold to make this happen,” Collin said. 

I think the purpose here is that, again, there is not enough innovation in the mobility space. There is so much more that we could do to help people engage and live their lives.”

-Sidney Collin, CEO and Co-founder of De Oro Devices

Collin admits that when she first joined the accelerator in 2018 there was a plan: Find people to run the company and eventually go back to the research. However, today, Collin is steadfastly committed to the work of De Oro Devices and the company’s future. 

“I think along the way, I realized that I [could] not leave because it is so meaningful to see the impact that this device has every day. I just went to one of my customer’s houses and took videos of him using it the other day and being able to see that first hand is amazing,” Collin said. “And then, I also realized that the company needed me to be a part of it because of my research background, my knowledge in this space and my passion for executing it.”

For new players, like Collin and her team, that are invested in solving these problems and paying attention to the needs of the aging demographic, the opportunity for a strong double bottom line is striking, reported the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). “[The aging population] are people who yearn for healthier, higher-quality lives in which they can feel as empowered and independent as possible.”

Still based in San Luis Obispo, California, Collin and her team sell the NexStride in seven countries globally and six outside of the US, including Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Norway. And this product is only the beginning for De Oro devices. 

“We are building a portfolio of products that all fall into this noninvasive, mobility, age, direct-to- consumer, at-home-use kind of products,” Collin said. “I think the purpose here is that, again, there is not enough innovation in the mobility space. There is so much more that we could do to help people engage and live their lives. Just being able to walk around by themselves gives somebody back so much independence and freedom that they wouldn’t have had before [when] having to rely on somebody else to do everything with them.”

The stories of NexStride’s impact are overwhelming and more than likely just beginning. For customers and their caregivers, there are few things as transformative as the freedom that this product gives back. Carol, a physical therapist, has been putting lines of tape around one of her client’s homes for years to act as a visual cue to combat his freezing of gait. The house, with a floor now full of tape, is only a block away from the beach. But, walking to the beach has, for a long time, been out of the question. It wasn’t until Carol brought him the NexStride, that he could finally break free of those lines and walk on his own towards the ocean for the first time in years.