The revelation for Amira Idris Radović’s business – one that could significantly improve the quality of life for her customers – came in the football team’s gym at the Carpenter Sports Building.
“I was working out to make up a practice that I missed, and I ran into a vibrating platform and got this light-bulb idea,” she said. “I don’t know what it was, so I curiously started playing around with it.”
“I stood on the machine and pressed the ‘on’ button, and I felt the vibrations from my legs all the way to the top of my body. This was really nice. It was like a massage.”
“When I got back home, I was really pondering that machine, and I started to research it. I read papers on how NASA was using it to help astronauts improve their bone density in space, and how it helped women with osteoporosis. And then there were all these other benefits of vibration. It took me down that rabbit hole. It just kind of clicked: This could be a way to help with pain management.”
Such machines – also called whole-body vibrating platforms – were being touted to confront the aches and pains of athletes and improve the strength and balance of older adults, but Radović had a much more serious idea: Flexible, customizable vibrating devices could help amputees reduce or avoid the phantom pain that some feel in parts of their bodies that are no longer there.
The idea propelled her to found TheraV, which “develops technology that optimizes pain treatment outcomes and improves quality of life in individuals living with nerve pain,” she writes on LinkedIn. “Outsmart your phantom limb,” TheraV proclaims on its home page.
Clinical immersion class
Radović was born in Nigeria, and her family moved to Virginia when she was young.
In college, she was drawn to engineering, first thinking that she would study mechanical engineering and build prostheses. “Then I learned about biomedical engineering, and it seemed like the perfect fit because I get to dabble in different types of engineering as it relates to the human body,” she said.
She chose the University of Delaware because it offered her the most academic and athletic scholarship. At UD, she ran sprints of up to 200 meters and at one point held the UD records in the long jump and triple jump.
Her interest in prostheses comes from her “love for science fiction movies, like ‘Robocop,’” she said. “I wanted to build technology that enhanced human ability.” Her first real-life encounter with them occurred when was at UD and she was working at Independence Prosthetics-Orthotics in Newark.
The spark for her business occurred in a clinical immersion course. “That course allowed me to spend winter break working at a clinic to find unmet needs and finding a solution for them,” she said. It’s a classic entrepreneurial concept, taught as customer discovery at Horn Entrepreneurship.
“Each week I have to find a list of unmet needs,” she said. “I had written down multiple things, but what really stuck out was the issue of phantom pain and pain management after an amputation. I had come up with the idea of using vibration after interviewing different patients, hearing their story and learning what worked and what did not work.” In the symposium that ended the class, she received a lot of positive feedback, from professors and doctors.
First Step Grand Challenge
She pitched her vibration idea through the First Step Experience, an interdisciplinary extracurricular program run by the College of Health Sciences. She won $500 for placing third in the First Step Grand Challenge. Her concept was not a vibrating plate, but a vibrating sock worn on the involved limb.
“I used the money from the prelims to make a prototype. I wanted to give people a visual and a feeling of my idea. I bought some socks, motors and battery packs from the internet. I reached out to the fashion department, and Professor Adriana Gorea helped me sew some pockets and line up the socks the way I wanted. I tested it on my teammates and used it for the competition. Attendees put their fist into the sock and turned on the vibration. Everyone said ‘Oh, this is really nice.’”
“It’s like a nice, smooth massage, not like a deep-tissue massage,” she said.
First Step “got me exposed to entrepreneurship because that’s when I got introduced to [Horn founding director] Dan Freeman, and I learned about the Entrepreneurship Club," said Radović. "I attended one of their meetings, and I thought it was very interesting. So I ended up taking an excellent Introduction to Entrepreneurship course my senior year, and that got me involved in Horn.”
Asked about her interest in earning a master’s degree through Horn, Radović shared, “I thought it was a perfect fit. There was a need for what I was doing, and it was worth doing the master’s program to see if I can further validate the idea, learn more about entrepreneurship and take the idea to the next level.”
In 2015, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical engineering, with minors in biomechanical engineering and bioelectrical engineering. She followed that in 2016 with a Master of Science in entrepreneurship and design. That second degree “was the perfect way for me to really focus on what I was working on for my product, as well as understand the market and how to actually run a business as an entrepreneur.”
Entrepreneurship dominated her master’s program, but she said other important classes included user-centered design and contract law.
Going above and beyond
In reflecting on her Horn experiences, she first gave a shoutout to Vince DiFelice, faculty director of venture support. “Very supportive and very encouraging. He’s gone through this and knew what I and other fellow student entrepreneurs were going through, so it was great to have him as a mentor.
“It was great to meet Charlie Horn himself.”
“Horn board members would encourage you and speak to you as a budding entrepreneur, not a little kid who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
“Robin Karol, one of my professors at Horn, personally made time to help me sew prototypes.
“[Startup adviser] John Currie and Christina Pellicane believed in me and supported me.
“Through Horn, I met Brian Pryor, one of the mentors for Summer Founders [and founder of the medical device manufacturer LiteCure], and he’s been mentoring me even still today – six years later.
“Everybody at Horn played a role in getting me to where I am today– from the people at the receptionist desk to the higher-ups. They were encouraging, sending me emails, and keeping me updated on grants and competitions. Every single person went above and beyond.”
The Elix 2.0 vs. phantom pain
TheraV started selling its vibration device in 2018. In 2022, it upgraded its only product. The $250 Elix 2.0 wraps around the end of the amputated limb, with several accessories.
“Our device doesn’t cure pain,” she said. “It’s a method to help our customers get through their pain episode without solely relying on medication that makes them feel like zombies.”
In a white paper on the TheraV website, she cites a report that counts 2.1 million amputees in the US (with that number expected to double by 2050) and 57.7 million worldwide. The most common causes of amputation in the US include diabetes and vascular disease (54%), trauma (45%) and cancer (less than 2%), she writes.
Several types of pain can occur after amputation. There’s residual pain from the operation itself. Residual pain can also recur “from skin problems and infections, nerve pain, neuroma formation or scar tissues,” the white paper continues.
And there’s the phantom pain – perhaps a cramping, burning or shooting sensation seemingly coming from a part of the body that’s gone. Nearly 85% of amputees experience phantom limb pain, and “no one knows or understands the cause,” beyond the idea that it involves misfired nerve signals.
Treatment for phantom limb pain is expensive, averaging $1,380 a year for drug-free alternative medicine to $5,666 for a pain center program. TheraV’s cuff fits into the first category, along with massage, yoga, acupuncture, naturopathy and chiropractic.
Opioids, socks and mirrors
The white paper charts seven competitors to the Elix. Opioids are the costliest and famously fraught for risk addiction. Electrical stimulation (known as e-stim) sends currents to contract and relax muscles. Specialized socks compress the limb, often while the user is sleeping. Mirror therapy involves exercises using a mirror, which tricks the mind into thinking the missing limb is also exercising and is OK.
The other three are other brands of vibrating devices, more focused on athletes. She has also found multiple home remedies, including adapting a vibrator and riding a scooter.
The chart credits the Elix with 10 pluses: relief within five minutes, over an hour of use per session, wearable technology, no severe side-effects, pain-tracking technology, a design for amputated limbs, customizable therapy, pain-tracking insights, Bluetooth and remote upgrades. The best for any competitor is three pluses. Still, the TheraV website carries a 169-word disclaimer for the Elix.
The Elix mechanically stimulates peripheral nerves on the limb, disrupting the pain signals from reaching the brain by closing the pain gate and providing mental and physical relaxation. This concept is best explained by the Gate-Controlled Theory of Pain.
“It has evolved from just one product trying to help with post-amputation pain to a product that is doing more than that. We are using digital health as a way to help our patients and innovate and transform amputation rehabilitation and care,” she said.
“We’re looking into limb pain and desensitization to help amputees get into their prostheses quicker. Our goal is to transform amputation rehabilitation and care, not just addressing one pain, but addressing all other pain points that amputees are experiencing.”
On the TheraV team
TheraV lists three team members on its site: Radović, Chief Technology Officer Chris Wells and Outreach Director Horitius Jen Lee. Wells owns Solidified, a Newark firm that focuses on instrumentation and product development for R&D groups and entrepreneurs. Radović met Lee at the Center for the Intrepid, a San Antonio military rehab facility for amputees and burn victims.
Lee is an amputee who uses the Elix. “He told me he wanted to join our team because he can see other military veterans benefiting as he did. And so we have a few of his Paralympic teammates, as well as veterans who’ve been using our device and taking it to their doctors at the VA Hospital.”
TheraV is not yet profitable, and Radović has not yet been paying herself. She has been using revenue, grants and awards in pitch competitions for research, prototyping, customer-driven product improvement (she stopped counting after 300 interviews, although she still automatically thinks about customer discovery when she meets new people) and selling (she’s pitched in multiple countries).
Her husband, Matija Radović, a civil engineer for the government, also participated in Horn activities while earning his doctorate from UD. “He’s one of my big supporters, along with my parents and my brothers,” she said. “He understands what I’m going through.”
Her involvement in building future entrepreneurs includes speaking at different on-campus events, such as Horn’s Free Lunch Fridays; mentoring at Summer Founders (Horn’s pre-accelerator for students to earn a stipend and work on a venture); helping with the Diamond Challenge (Horn’s innovative entrepreneurship competition for teens around the world); speaking to high school students interested in entrepreneurship; and a briefing on Capitol Hill on the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps).
“Much of the early funding I got to run TheraV came directly and indirectly through Horn Entrepreneurship,” she said. “I am forever grateful.” Horn also let her for free use the Venture Development Center as her company address for five years until she set up a Wilmington office.
“Whenever Horn calls, I always sign up to help because I know how much they’ve helped me,” she said. “And this is the best way I can give back.”
About Horn Entrepreneurship
Horn Entrepreneurship serves as the creative engine for entrepreneurship education and advancement at the University of Delaware. Currently ranked among the best entrepreneurship programs in the US, Horn Entrepreneurship was built and is actively supported by successful entrepreneurs, empowering aspiring innovators as they pursue new ideas for a better world.