Courtney Williamson (Ph.D. 2016)
CEO and Founder, AbiliLife
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
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Immediately after receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Spelman College, Courtney Williamson (Ph.D. 2016) jumped into the Tepper School’s Ph.D. program in organizational behavior and theory. She had a strong interest in education — in part because her mother was an educator — and wanted to study community college student performance. Like most Ph.D. students, she had her sights set on a career as a professor and researcher.

However, her mother ended up inspiring a different path. Having seen her mother struggle for decades with Parkinson’s disease, Williamson sought a way to help her mother maintain balance and posture, to help mitigate the movement difficulties and stiffness caused by the disorder. When she discovered that there was no viable product on the market, she went to the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship’s Project Olympus program to see about getting a back brace made.

Though her father is an entrepreneur, Williamson hadn’t considered the same career path for herself. But after realizing there was a demand, she shifted course, launching AbiliLife to manufacture and sell the Calibrace+, a back brace that lifts the shoulders up and back, helping Parkinson’s patients stand upright and move independently. Now, just two years after graduating, Williamson has grown AbiliLife into a thriving medical equipment company.

What is your elevator pitch?

AbiliLife is a medical device company. We engineer biomedical products to improve the quality of life for patients with spinal deformities or neuromuscular diseases, or who are elderly. Our first product on the market is the Calibrace+ back brace, which is an FDA-registered, Medicare-reimbursed device that improves posture and balance by lifting the shoulders up and back. The Calibrace+ re-adjusts the back so that patients can stand up straight, which improves breathing and food digestion and can potentially reduce the risk of falls.

What was the “aha” moment?

AbiliLife came from a personal need. My mom had Parkinson’s disease for a majority of my life. Her posture and balance were getting worse over time. I called the National Parkinson Foundation and inquired about products that could potentially help her, but their response at the time was, “We don’t really have any recommendations.”

Knowing how interdisciplinary Carnegie Mellon was, and knowing how many amazing engineering students there were, I went to Project Olympus — which is a part of the Swartz Center — and I said, “I have this idea but I don’t know how to make it.” I heard that a student was successful in creating her own back brace through Project Olympus, so I thought I could find some students to assist in creating a device.

I was required to write a one-page market analysis as a condition for being a member of the Project Olympus program. In doing so, I realized that my mom was not the only patient that had problems with posture. There are about 300 million patients in America alone that face challenges with posture and balance and could potentially benefit from the Calibrace+.

How did Carnegie Mellon help shape your companies?

I think that my story is something that is a product of Tepper: I created an innovative, interdisciplinary project that ended up growing beyond an idea to a medical device product sold in over 35 states and 50 prescribing hospitals such as Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic.

The early stages of AbiliLife were shaped in the Swartz Center. Participating in the I-Corps Program enabled us to receive funding from the National Science Foundation for research and development, an accomplishment that Lenore Blum [Founding Director of Project Olympus, Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science] encouraged. We also received some early seed funding from the Swartz Center to build sales channels and manufacture product.

Kit Needham [Early Stage Advisor and Mentor at the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship] suggested that I consider reaching out to the biomedical engineering department about a capstone course led by Dr. Conrad Zapata [Teaching Professor of Biomedical Engineering] and Dr. Wayne Chung [Associate Professor in the School of Design]. The goal of the biomedical course is to have students work on projects that real-world company sponsors propose to provide students with experience contributing to significant projects. Several Project Olympus companies created products in the capstone course, and I was optimistic about my ability to create a device within the course. I spent a year with a group of five undergraduate students in the capstone course to develop the Calibrace+. I am pleased to say that we were granted a utility patent this past April for the invention.

Project Olympus was an excellent launch pad for applying to AlphaLab Gear, a Pittsburgh-based hardware accelerator. My acceptance to the AlphaLab Gear program gave me nine months to perfect the brace design for manufacturing.

How about growth?

Dave Mawhinney [Associate Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship, Executive Director of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship] taught me growth happens when you create a product that people need. The next step is that people have to be willing to buy what you are selling, whether it’s with their actual money or with their time. I took that lesson to heart and spent a considerable amount of time speaking with patients in the community. A little-known fact is that western Pennsylvania has one of the largest percentages per capita of Parkinson’s patients in our nation. The Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania was instrumental in providing us access to patients so that we could better understand the market.

It became evident after speaking with patients that obtaining reimbursement for the Calibrace+ was imperative in order for sales to grow. Many of our patients are on a fixed income and it is not always feasible for them to purchase the brace out of pocket. We were fortunate to have Medicare grant permission for us to use an existing reimbursement code. In addition, AbiliLife became a registered durable medical equipment company in 2016, which means we are authorized to bill Medicare and private insurance.

We focused on marketing directly to patients and witnessed growth through our marketing initiatives. Those tactics allowed us to progress from only having a presence in Pennsylvania to selling to patients in 35 states.

Does anything keep you up at night?

Time and resources are always limited for small companies. There are many patients and doctors who do not know of the Calibrace+. I spoke with a patient the other day who said, “I’m so happy I found you. This is the best news I’ve heard in four years concerning my disease.” We are enthusiastic when patients and medical professionals find out about us, but we want to make sure that more people know how the Calibrace+ can improve their quality of life.

What “big ideas” would you like to pursue next?

We’re in the research and development process of developing a wearable clinical assessment tool, which would use sensor technology and machine learning algorithms to track motor symptoms and other vital signs of patients. It is difficult for patients to track their disease symptoms day to day, so we wanted to provide a tool that could objectively measure balance, tremor, gait, and vitals.

The clinical tool could also assist the pharmaceutical industry during the development of drugs and devices through using our monitoring system. Clinical trials are used to validate the safety and efficacy of novel drugs and devices. However, data collection in the pharmaceutical industry can be antiquated. Most of the time, patients visit clinics to fill out paper surveys and have a nurse monitor them. We would like to change how the data collection process is managed. Providing a digital data collection process could enable more elderly patients to participate in studies as the barrier of needing to physically come in to a clinic several times would be mitigated. There is a shortage of seniors in clinical study enrollments, which leads to biased data. The clinical tool could offer a solution for enrolling older patients by reducing the physical and logistical burden of in-lab clinical studies.

What key piece of information gets overlooked when getting started?

An integral piece that is often overlooked is the difficulty of finding an optimal team fit. Recruiting people who are aligned with your vision and are capable of consistently performing at a high level is challenging. Team fit is particularly important in medical startups, where there’s a lot at stake because you are impacting people’s lives. One of the first OB concepts that I learned as a doctoral student was transactive memory systems, which colloquially is defined as “knowing who knows what in a team.” Understanding everyone’s role is important for continual growth. I am blessed to have an incredible team member, Jawaina Perminter. She directs all reimbursement processes and interfaces with clinicians and patients. Her dedication and hard work make her a fantastic team member.

Also, I think that research is pivotal component of a successful venture. My research Ph.D. definitely helped me with understanding the importance of thoroughly researching a topic. I built up the stamina during my doctoral program to read through very lengthy legal and government documents so that I can better understand legislation around Medicare and the FDA. Committing to research has been an important part of my growth as a CEO.

Pivotal players who get included in the thank-you speech?

My thank you speech begins by praising God for His limitless love.

The main inspiration for why AbiliLife exists is my mom, Antoinette Williamson. She passed away about six months after I founded the company. She and my dad — her husband, Garland Williamson —stressed the importance of education. I’m the only one in my family with a Ph.D., so I felt that I was able to reach a milestone for my family. Starting a company in my mother’s honor is something that I am extremely proud of. And I couldn’t think of a better person to share the caregiving journey with than my sister, Stacey Williamson, who is incredibly supportive.

I am fortunate to be the recipient of mentorship from a village of professionals such as Marcella Copes, Myrtle Dorsey, Carolane Williams, and Shirley Biggs. One of my earliest mentors, Thomas Dean, who is CEO of Baltimore Youth Alliance, challenged me to focus on maximizing my potential as a student while in high school, and he encouraged me throughout my studies at Tepper. In fact, several students from the Baltimore Youth Alliance successfully matriculated through Tepper’s MBA program before and during my matriculation.

My journey at Tepper would not have begun without the support of Larry Jennings [MBA 1987, CMU Trustee] who encouraged me to apply to Tepper’s competitive doctoral program. He supported me throughout my studies and even attended my dissertation defense.Mr. Jennings is a successful entrepreneur and serves as a role model for me as I embark on my own venture.

I want to thank my dissertation committee for having faith, particularly because entrepreneurship is such a different path for Ph.D. students. I think my committee’s support is a testament to how innovative Tepper is. In particular, my dissertation chair, Linda Argote [David M. Kirr and Barbara A. Kirr Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory; Director of the Center of Organizational Learning, Innovation, and Knowledge], was extremely supportive of me from the beginning of my doctoral studies and continues to inspire me through her research and commitment to students.

After I graduated from Tepper, the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial community as a whole welcomed me, particularly the leadership at Innovation Works. They invested in AbiliLife and continue to offer support during my firm’s growth.