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Mom Invents Firefly Upsee to Help Her Special-Needs Child Walk

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For Debby Elnatan, entrepreneurship was the only option. Her son Rotem has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, and even his doctors told Debby to limit Rotem’s physical activity, meaning Rotem would have a limited life. But Debby had different plans for her son, so the Upsee, a harness that would help Rotem and other children like him, was born.

As the proverb goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” After speaking with Debby about her son’s challenges and how she became an entrepreneur not by choice, but because it was the only way to help Rotem, I believe “mother” is the operative word.

Rotem’s physical therapists did not encourage Debby and her husband, Zohar, to teach him to crawl and walk for fear that it would raise his spasticity. So, Rotem spent his days seated and still.

“It should not have come as such as a surprise when his therapists told us that Rotem does not know what his legs are and that he has no consciousness of them,” Debby says. “I was in tears for two weeks, before desperately starting to walk and stand my son.”

Debby refused to let Rotem live his life on the sidelines, so she defied the therapists’ recommendations and began facilitating him behind their backs. It wasn’t easy.

“I learned to facilitate his standing and walking, but stooping or kneeling to assist Rotem made my task nearly unbearable, and I just didn’t have enough hands to give him the support that he needed,” she says.

Debby’s turning point came when she was at the playground with Rotem one day, trying to give him a normal day of play while other moms looked on with pity. The pain in her heart from seeing her son’s restrictions – and the pain in her back from letting him “borrow” her own movements – led her to create the first version of the Upsee.

Debby calls her first iteration, “primitive,” but she steadfastly worked through the development process without the help of an R&D team. The beta version of her product was a set of flexible, tethered double-sandals, and she and Rotem were the only ones in the user group. Simple trial-and-error led her through several versions of the product before she finally got it right.

And Rotem let her know exactly when she had done so.

“As we would near our destination, I could feel Rotem ‘voting with his feet’ as he started to walk energetically,” she says.

That’s right – walk. Right then and there, Debby’s entrepreneurial efforts could have been considered a success. She had achieved what she set out to do, which was to give her son the mobility his disease had taken away.

Like the best entrepreneurs, though, Debby wanted to share her invention. She wanted other parents to feel her joy at seeing Rotem use the legs that had never even factored into his life before.

Debby teamed up with medical technology expert Dr. Yehuda Zicherman, who connected her with Leckey Designs, a company specializing in assistive technology. A few more prototype upgrades and a business plan later, and the Upsee was ready to go to market.

Parents and children trying out the new Upsee

Parents and children trying out the new Upsee

However rewarding this commercial success may be, Debby quickly points to the more rewarding success of helping others. Firefly, the Ireland-based company distributing the product, has been bombarded with parents who want an Upsee so their own children can overcome mobility issues. The Upsee goes on sale on April 7, and Debby has spent this week presenting her product to parents and physical therapists around the world.

I asked Debby if she had advice for other moms who wanted to start companies, the so-called “mompreneurs.”

“We moms have enormous power,” she said. Don’t accept the world as you see it now. Use your imagination and your creativity. The sky is the limit.”

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Upsee creator Debby Elnatan and a happy customer

Photo credit: Firefly on Facebook

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About the Author

Meg Rayford is a communications consultant based in Northern Virginia. She previously spent two years as the Director of Public Relations for a nonprofit startup, where she learned a lot about providing clean water for impoverished countries, even within the confines of a bootstrapped startup. She is the editor of Tech Cocktail, and she develops media strategies for companies in Washington, DC and Virginia. You can read her most recent work in the marketing chapter of the upcoming book, "Social Innovation and Impact in Nonprofit Leadership," which will be published in Spring 2014 by Springer Publishing. Follow her @megkrayford.

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