Business Idea Competition Winner Developing New Product to Aid Autistic Children

ITHACA, N.Y. – Toddlers often take to their toes as they learn to walk, balanced on the balls of their feet as they amble about. But toe-walking – as this type of mobility is known – past the age of five or six can be an indicator of underlying neurological conditions, including autism. And children who toe-walk long term can also suffer physical damage that requires painful, expensive treatments to correct.

That’s why Mia Thomas ’13, a clinical health studies major, is developing a product to encourage toe-walkers to step normally. Her product idea was one of the winners in last fall’s Business Idea Competition at Ithaca College, and with it she aims to reduce the need for treatments such as surgery, braces, and repeated casting.

“Other treatments are so expensive, and they just seem to put the children through so much,” Thomas said. Her product, known as InsertHeels, is meant to painlessly alleviate the condition by providing the physical stimulation patients seek when they take to their toes.

Children toe-walk because the added pressure on the balls of their feet heightens the physical stimulation they feel as they move about. When done long-term the Achilles tendons, which connect the calf muscles to the heels, will shorten. The result is an inability to walk normally unless treated.

Thomas won $5,000 from the competition for InsertHeels, which is a solution as simple as the name suggests: shoe inserts with nodules placed strategically on the portion that contacts the heel, which provide stimulation to the patient with each full footfall.

From Idea to Testing

Thomas said she spent about $40 of her winnings on an initial round of prototypes. She crafted three pairs of InsertHeels with the nubs arranged in slightly different patterns to correspond with areas of the heel that are most sensitive. They consist of store-bought shoe inserts and vinyl protective bumpers usually used for furniture and countertops.

“It was really hard to find ones that were actual hemispheres,” Thomas said of the bumpers. After scouring a local hardware store at her home in California over winter break, however, she found exactly what she needed.

Another challenge was finding the right size shoe insert, because Thomas doesn’t want InsertHeels to require patients to get new, oversized shoes to accommodate them. Since she couldn’t find orthotics sized for children, Thomas had to cut adult-sized inserts down to a children’s size 13, based on a template she created from a pair of girls’ flats. Ensuring an exact fit was key.

“We didn’t want the inserts to feel uncomfortable once placed in the shoe. If a patient felt an edge right next to their toe, that might be annoying,” Thomas said.

She plans to have her sister-in-law, who is a behavioral therapist for autistic children in the Boston area, conduct early trials at her office. After that, Thomas will craft latex molds of the existing prototypes for a more refined version to be used in more extensive trials. In fact, her sister-in-law inadvertently inspired the idea for InsertHeels by constantly prodding Thomas to come work with her patients when she graduates, since her clinical therapy skillset could help with the condition.

“This is the first thing that came to my mind when she said that all her patients toe-walked because they wanted stimulation.”

Thomas estimates that three pairs of InsertHeels would retail for $150, and they would need to be replaced every year. However, she notes that price could change based on how materials – especially the nodules that stimulate the heels – respond and wear from the pressures applied from daily use during the trial phase.

A Competitive Idea

This past year was the second for the Business Idea Competition, sponsored by IC’s School of Business and alumnus Chris Burch ’76, chairman of J. Christopher Capital and co-founder of the Tory Burch women’s fashion label. He has spent more than 30 years as an entrepreneur and investor focused on luxury and technology brands.

The competition was open to all IC students, and weekly coaching sessions were offered to help guide students as they crafted their ideas and pitches. “Those sessions really helped me know what the judges were looking for,” Thomas said. “Otherwise, I would have just been like ‘This is science!’ and explained everything in scientific terms. Which probably wouldn’t have worked out so well.”

She and three other first-place winners all won $5,000, with no stipulations on its use. However, winners will receive additional funding up to another $5,000 if they continue with their plan and reach certain milestones.

Thomas actually fleshed out the idea for InsertHeels during her junior year for a project in the Neuromuscular Control course she was taking with Professor Jeff Ives, so much of the initial research – such as the logistics on how InsertHeels would help toe-walkers and reading various studies on manual therapies – was done for that. With persistent encouragement from Ives, she entered the competition this past fall and delved deeper into the size of the population afflicted with the condition (according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics last year, 41 percent of children diagnosed with autism or other neuropsychiatric disorders toe-walk), as well as alternative, non-manual treatments.

“I honestly was not expecting anything,” Thomas said of her win. “I was just thinking it was a good way to motivate me to continue to study this.”

To view a video of Thomas’s presentation, view her PowerPoint slides, and for information on the other winners, visit the Business Idea Competition website.

Mia Thomas '13 with the first prototypes of InsertHeels.