Each year, millions of people develop pressure sores. The condition is painful, costly and leads to thousands of deaths. A start-up company in Richmond seeks to address this widespread problem, aiming to improve quality of life for individuals and potentially saving millions in medical costs. Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp has more.
Learn More: Find out more about the Cush team and their crowdfunding efforts, and contact them directly at CUSHstopsthepressure@gmail.com. They’re also competing in the Lighthouse Labs Business Acceleration program. For research and data on pressure sores, visit the National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel website.
It’s 7:30 am and several dozen people are filling the Snead Hall atrium at VCU’s School of Business. It’s the monthly Encorepreneur breakfast event, a gathering of business and civic leaders. Geared toward engaging boomers and pre-boomers in the next phase of their personal and professional endeavors, a trio of young people stand out:
Participants: Calvin Peterson, nice to meet you...
Calvin Peterson and his partners Katie Taylor and Wayne Pitts are here to network. The VCU students have won three different competitions for their business plan to develop Cush, a wheelchair cushion to address the problem of pressure sores.
Calvin Peterson: It’s a wheelchair cushion that combines gel, foam and alternating air and it moves air around, so the person doesn’t have to shift their own pressure...
Jay Markiewicz: We have some students here today and they have started a business called Cush...
During the breakfast presentation, the group is recognized by Jay Markiewicz, a professor of entrepreneurship at VCU who says they’re an example of the talent they want to see coming out of the School of Business.
Markiewicz: And they’re here today so I encourage you to come up to Calvin and his team to say hi and share some of your wisdom and to listen to their story, because it’s a great story.
It’s been a hectic seven months for Peterson, Taylor and Pitts who began collaborating during an entrepreneurship capstone course at VCU. They had to develop an idea they could potentially market, and their professor encouraged them to pursue something they were passionate about.
Calvin Peterson: I’m sitting on a cushion now that I think I’m sitting on just for mental purposes, to make me feel better.
Peterson has used a wheelchair for nine years, after being shot in the chest shortly after his 21st birthday. The bullet hit his spinal cord, paralyzing him below the waist. Six years ago, he developed a pressure sore on his tailbone. It started out small, but quickly worsened.
Peterson: It was so bad I had to get surgery to correct it because my bone literally ate through my skin.
Peterson missed a semester of school and an entire year of work. He had to get surgery and the recovery was challenging.
Peterson: It was very depressing, because I couldn’t do anything. Even when I had the surgery, I had to stay in house and stay off it, so I had to stay on one side so I couldn’t go anywhere. And when I had to use bathroom and take shower, I had to be careful because there was a tube coming out.
According to the National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel, an estimated 2.5 million people in the United States develop pressure sores. About 60,000 people die from pressure sore complications and the economic cost is calculated at $9 to $11 billion.
Pitts and Taylor say they wanted to collaborate with Peterson to help create a solution to this problem.
Wayne Pitts: It’s a big issue for individuals with paraplegia and quadriplegia, that pressure ulcers can really just take them out of life potentially. There are deaths from pressure ulcers but then also to just make their quality of life that much worse than it needs to be.
Pressure sores affect all ages, from babies born prematurely to seniors in nursing homes. Also called bedsores or pressure ulcers, they form on parts of the body where the skin and tissues have weakened due to pressure or friction. Peterson points out that actor and activist Christopher Reeve died from complications connected to pressure sores.
Peterson: He was superman, he died from a complication from pressure ulcers and a lot of people don’t know that, they just remember him falling off the horse and being paralyzed. But that was the cause of his death was attributed to pressure ulcers. So I guess I just want everyone to know pressure ulcers exist and the pain is real.
A variety of cushions exist to help alleviate pressure sores, but Peterson says they’re problematic. He was using a cushion when he developed his pressure sore and the one he has now looks mostly deflated. He reaches inside the cushion and pulls out several flat, blue pieces of plastic material.
Peterson: The air cells, there’s supposed to be air in these, but as you can see they’re not. I think most of them popped within first two, three months of me having it.
Peterson’s first-hand experience, Taylor’s skills in finance and Pitts’ outreach and marketing savvy helped lead them to where they are now. The $8,000 they’ve won in competitions, along with the recognition, has taken Cush beyond a school project. One of the biggest boosts they got, says Taylor, was from attorneys helping them pro bono.
Katie Taylor: We’re lucky enough that we had McGuireWoods offer to help us do the patent research pro bono and now they’re filling out our provisional patent application. We think because of their work it will be relatively easy for us to get through, we think that we’ll avoid infringing on other parents and whatnot, but if we hadn’t had their help then I’m not sure where we’d be right now with the patent application. Having them confirm we had patentable idea was a huge step in getting us going.
While they’re going through the patent process, they can’t divulge too many details about how Cush will work. For now, Taylor describes it as a combination of different technologies that will give wheelchair users stability and structure.
Taylor: If it works, in essence it will actually heal the pressure ulcer and prevent further pressure ulcers from forming from the pressure ulcer that is alleviated.
The Cush co-founders say the support of VCU and their mentors has helped them make significant progress while all working jobs and finishing their degrees. They used some of their prize money to draft an operational agreement, register as an LLC and conduct a focus group. Now they’re tackling the next big step, launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise $40,000. If they’re successful, the funds will be used to hire a product development company to create a prototype of their cushion. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE news.