Hans Franke had no idea when he tripped and broke his foot chasing a toad out of a pool filter that he'd stumbled into his next business venture.
Franke was enjoying a swim during a vacation to Hawaii in 2008 when he slipped as he hustled across the pool deck to keep a huge toad from being sucked into the pool machinery. He broke his metatarsal bones, which connect the toes to the foot.
After an intial misdiagnosis, Franke faced a complicated surgery and the prospect of navigating his three-story house at Incline Village on crutches for three months.
It was there the idea for Toad Medical Corporation was born. Toad Medical manufactures and distributes its patented TBrace, designed to help people with foot and ankle injuries remain mobile while they rehabilitate. The brace, modeled after ski-boot technology, is a carbon-fiber strut that grips the cast or lower leg and extends beneath the foot, keeping the foot 100 percent suspended. Users can remain mobile, and the device greatly reduces muscle atrophy common to ankle and foot injuries.
"I had a perfectly healthy leg, but the muscles began to atrophy very quickly because I couldn't put weight on my foot," Franke says. "I thought there should be devices that unload the foot and allow you to ambulate. In my past life I had to do lot with patents, so I did a patent search and didn't find any devices that took weight off the foot but still allowed patients to move."
Franke, along with Toad Medical Corporation Chief Executive Officer Steve Kulifaj and doctors Jeffrey Todd of North Tahoe Orthopaedics in Truckee and David Salinger, spent several years refining the brace and building a market for the device. Currently, Toad Medical makes the TBrace from its Vassar Street headquarters, but it plans to outsource manufacture of the carbon-fiber strut to a Florida-based aircraft and military supplier.
Toad Medical recently secured partial financing from a private investment group in exchange for an equity stake in the company and hired three salaried employees to work in manufacturing, marketing and customer service. So far, Franke says, the company has sold several hundred devices, but it expects a big rampup as it targets new markets, such as people with Type-2 diabetes.
"This is a perfect device for diabetics with open foot ulcers," Franke says. "Recently, we have had people who were ready to have their feet amputated, and even in the most severe cases, they are back to work on both feet. We have taken people out of wheelchairs after two years and they are up and walking again."
Toad Medical plans to expand to several additional offices around the country to expedite shipping times to East Coast customers.
Turnaround times are crucial in the prosthetics industry, Franke says, because most doctors want patients in a brace within 24 hours of a major foot surgery. It also plans to manufacture an off-the-shelf version of the custom-made brace that would be significantly expensive and easier to obtain. The Toad Medical Corp. TBrace, which has to be prescribed by a doctor, is typically reimbursed by Medicare or insurance between $2,500 and $3,000.
A final piece of the company's growth plans includes securing contracts with distributors and manufacturers overseas to expand the concept throughout the world. The brace also could prove beneficial to the Veterans Administration for wounded soldiers, but Franke says the company thus far lacked the manpower to target the VA.
"It has such a unique appeal," Franke says. "It is the only known device that can help diabetics with foot ulcers."