Van Phillips, inventor of the Flex-Foot brand of prosthetic feet and limbs, turned a tragic moment into a revolutionary business that has helped thousands around the world lead more normal, active lives.
Born in 1954, Phillips grew up in Lake Forest, Ill., and was a third-year student in the broadcasting program at Arizona State University in 1976 when a water skiing accident changed his life. A motorboat ran into him and cut his left leg off just above the ankle, threatening to put an end to his athletic, active lifestyle. He was faced with the necessity of wearing prosthesis so he could get around on his own without crutches; the prosthetic limbs that were available were stiff, clumsy and uncomfortable and left him frustrated. Some encouraged him to accept what had happened to him, learn to live with it and move on, but he was determined to find a way to run again.
A year later Phillips decided to focus on building a new type of prosthesis himself. He left ASU and entered Northwestern University’s Biomedical Engineering program. There he began to conceptualize an artificial limb that would allow its users to jump and rebound; it would need to have strength, resilience and flexibility, as well as be strong and unbreakable.
After completing his BS degree in 1981, Phillips went to work as a development engineer for the Center for Biomedical Design at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. There he worked on sockets, linings, and attachments of prostheses, while he continued to explore materials and designs that would work for the design he was forming in his mind.
Inspired by the C-shape of a cheetah’s hind leg, Phillips developed an initial design and began building a prototype. He searched for lightweight, durable, strong materials that also offered energy return. He settled on carbon graphite; with help of aerospace materials engineer, Dale Abildskov, he refined his prototype, testing hundreds of models himself.
The final design included an L-shaped foot; this shape gave the material a “heel.” When the wearer applied weight to the heel, it acted like a spring, converting the weight into energy as the wearer pushed off with each step. This meant the wearer could run and jump, just as he or she could with a real foot.
As soon as Phillips completed his design, he quit his job to work full time on the project, founding Flex-Foot, Inc., in 1984 with Abildskov and two other partners. His products were tested shortly thereafter by athletes at the Paralympics; popularity soared immediately. Phillips’ invention or some variation of the original Flex-Foot design is now used by some 90 percent of Paralympian athletes and by many others who can now enjoy more active lives as a result of his work.
Phillips, who holds approximately 100 U.S. and international patents, made it possible for amputees to participate in sports such as running, skiing, climbing and hiking. In 1998, he was awarded the Brian Blatchford Memorial Prize from the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics. He sold his interest in Flex-Foot in 2000 to Ossur, an Icelandic prosthetics firm, which continues to build on the Flex-Foot line.
In 1999 Phillips founded the Second Wind Foundation to help amputees around the world and, through the foundation, hopes to be able to provide inexpensive, virtually indestructible prostheses similar to the Flex-Foot for those who need them no matter where they live.