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Soletics brings warmth and healing for disease sufferers, one finger at a time

The gloves are a game changer for people with Raynaudís disease.

A local startup hopes to provide relief to sufferers of Raynaud’s disease and other conditions by offering lightweight smart gloves that provide targeted heat therapy. Find out how the three co-founders of Soletics, all recent graduates of Grand Valley State University’s business program as well as Emerge Xcelerator, plan to finish refining their glove’s design and take the product to market within the next year.
If you find Michigan winters a hard slog, just imagine if you had Raynaud’s disease. The disorder, which is triggered by cold and stress, causes your arteries to shut down and skin to blanch in body parts like fingers and toes. With no circulation, sufferers experience numbness and discomfort, and can even lose tissue or whole digits to a severe attack.

A local startup, though, aims to help treat Raynaud’s and other related conditions with a new heated smart glove, and they say their product could prove life-changing for those that suffer from severe forms of the often-overlooked circulatory disorder, which affects 3 to 5 percent of the general population.

Grand Rapids-based Soletics graduated this week from Emerge Xcelerate, a six-month accelerator from Emerge West Michigan and funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and the Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA). The three co-founders of Soletics, all recent graduates of Grand Valley State University’s business program as well as the accelerator, say they now plan to finish refining their glove’s design and take the product to market within the next year.

From left, Lindsay Noonan, Vanessa Gore, and Michael Kurley.Soletics got its start in a Grand Valley business class where the three co-founders — chief communications officer Vanessa Gore, chief marketing officer Lindsay Noonan and CEO Michael Kurley — got assigned to work together on a business plan. The group, who didn’t know each other, settled on an idea from rugby player Noonan to produce a solar-powered heated shirt for athletes, and Soletics (a combination of “solar” and “athletics”) was born.

If the story sounds like kismet, Gore says it seemed like anything but at the time. The group all agree on one point: They hated each other at first.

“I think that’s what helped push the company along, because we weren’t worried about keeping face with each other,” Gore says. “We’d just be like, ‘that’s a dumb idea.’

“When I stood up and proposed a solar-powered shirt,” Noonan adds, “Michael was like, ‘That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”

“And I was just sitting back like, ‘I’m dropping this class, this sucks,’” recalls Gore.

The group got a good grade on the project and decided to take the idea to a competition for extra credit. They won “best prototype,” which encouraged them further, but as they started talking to people in the running-gear industry for feedback, they began to feel the idea was a dead end. Solar panels add significant weight to clothing, and the group found that added weight is generally a non-starter when you’re pitching gear to competitive runners.

The group switched focus, first to a heated ski jacket, and then to heated ski gloves after a sweaty trip on the slopes with the warm jacket killed that idea. But as the Soletics team began to take their gloves on the road to various business competitions, a steady trickle of strangers began to approach them with similar stories: They had a disease called Raynaud’s, and wondered whether Soletics might come up with a glove specifically designed to treat their symptoms.

After a handful of such conversations, the group began to delve into the facts surrounding Raynaud’s: The disease, which causes blood vessels to constrict and skin to turn blue or white in response to even brief exposure to cold, affects as many as 28 million people in the United States. Despite its prevalence, though, Raynaud’s often goes unreported because many people who have it don’t have severe symptoms, or chalk up their symptoms to a natural reaction to cold.

Even for those who do seek medical treatment, options have historically been limited. Although some medications that dilate blood vessels have been shown to treat the condition effectively, their usefulness varies widely from patient to patient, and even effective options sometimes simply stop working over time. Many severe sufferers end up trying to manage their symptoms with lifestyle changes, herbal remedies and self-help methods, often with limited success.

On several occasions, Noonan says, sufferers told the group they simply wound up wearing heavy ski or outdoor gloves for almost their entire lives to treat unmanaged severe attacks.

“The more we started to look into Raynaud’s and the community, the more we realized this is a large group of people that’s essentially being ignored,” Noonan says. “And then it became friends and family of people we met who started [getting in touch], and more and more people starting approaching us. And the more we researched, the more we realized this is a market that has a true need, and that we can actually impact their lives on a daily basis.”

Besides Raynaud’s, the team says their gloves also have potential applications in treating most other conditions that respond well to heat therapy, like arthritis or poor circulation caused by type 2 diabetes.

Although it’s still in a prototype stage, Soletics’ lightweight, ultra-thin glove will use temperature sensors in the fingertips and a small FitBit-sized power band that contains both a battery and the hardware-software elements. The band picks up changes in temperature in real-time and will automatically heat the glove, which is made of a heat-conducting fabric, to compensate. The power band detaches from the hand-washable glove and will be compatible with any glove Soletics makes. One glove and power band together are expected to retail for $250, with the glove lasting for about 10 to 12 months and the band for several years.

The glove can sense temperature changes from the inside and the outside, which is key for Raynaud’s sufferers. They sometimes have only a single digit or two affected during an attack, and when it happens, the skin on the affected areas stops radiating heat and is cold to the touch. Soletics’ glove can sense this and apply needed extra heat to those fingers only, providing targeting therapy and battery economy at the same time.

“Our glove, on a finger by finger basis, is able to sense the external environment and apply heat when needed, says Soletics CEO Michael Kurley. “So if I’m wearing the glove and I grab a cold bottle, the glove will immediately know my fingers are going to get cold and start applying heat to protect me from feeling that differential.”

That distinction is key — unlike most heated gloves, which will heat your hands until they’re sweating bullets, Soletics’ glove is designed to simply keep the wearer from noticing any environmental temperature changes. One tester, the chairwoman of the National Raynaud’s Association, told the group that she didn’t realize the glove was working until she noticed she wasn’t having attacks, and could reach in and out of her freezer without sensing a temperature change.

“It’s maintaining a constant microclimate [for your hands],” Noonan says. “Ideally, you shouldn’t even notice it’s working, which is sort of a re-education experience for most consumers [when it comes to heated gloves].”

Although most components of the glove, like the heated fabric and the temperature sensors, are pre-existing products that Soletics pulled together, the Soletics team say they have applied for a patent related to the attachment between the glove and power band.

In total, the Soletics team raised about $100,000 in funding by taking their ideas to business and startup competitions while they were still in school. After graduation, they applied to Emerge Xcelerate at the encouragement of some longtime colleagues and friends from GR Current, and they recently graduated from the accelerator and participated in the program’s “Demo Day” along with the other cohort businesses on September 22.

“This is like blood brothers,” Noonan says of the Xcelerate startups that gathered on Demo Day. “I know if I ever had a problem, I could go to [fellow Xcelerate startups] SetHero or PhotoUp or any other company in the cohort. It’s really not a competitive thing — it’s like, ‘We’re all in the same boat, let’s help each other.’”

“I’m sad it’s over, that’s for sure,” she adds.

Going forward, the Soletics team plan to have their gloves ready for a soft launch in February 2016, with a mass-market release in March or April. The company has already received about 250 pre-orders from eight different countries, Gore says. They also hope to obtain FDA approval next year for the gloves as a treatment option for Raynaud’s, which would allow doctors to prescribe the gloves and patients to seek insurance reimbursement.

Soletics also plans to move back into the athletic market — eventually. Their therapeutic gloves will provide a “gen-one” launch for the technology and an initial niche for the company while they work on some of the additional design challenges for sport applications, like water and wind resistance.

“We’d have to bulk up and make other mods,” he says, “but [our gloves] can definitely work as a traditional outdoor glove, and provide the same effectiveness as other heated gloves with less power usage and much more dexterity.”

In the meantime, Gore says, the three co-founders are mainly focused on pulling off the last act of their transition from a plucky student group to a serious startup company. They hope to raise enough funding to procure a headquarters and bring the team on full-time within the next year.

“Changing from a student project to an actual company, that’s a huge mentality switch,” Gore says. “Just even in terms of how we run meetings, how we hold each other accountable. We’ve had a lot of ‘come-to-Jesus’ talks about that, just the team and [the people at Xcelerate]. Like, ‘This is your moment, you really need to shine.’”

Steven Thomas Kent is a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steventkent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback. His stories are made possible by support from Emerge West Michigan.

Photography by Adam Bird

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