Entrepreneur, heal thyself


August 21, 2011

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By JAN NORMAN / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

For 10 years Bill Schultz had episodes of lower back pain that at times was so severe he couldn't move for a week.

His quest for a solution led him to start AlignMed, a Santa Ana company, to make and sell "evidence-based apparel."

A physically active person, Schultz had played college soccer on a scholarship and worked out regularly. Finally, at age 45, doctors recommended surgery to fuse a disk in his spine. But he had worked in the surgical equipment industry for 20 years, had watched 10,000 surgeries and knew that back surgery would restrict his movement and possibly lead to more back problems later.

Schultz's search for an alternative to surgery led him in 2004 to a Newport Beach chiropractor who had developed a garment originally intended for rehabilitation following shoulder surgery.

"The problem in my back was mechanical that could be corrected," Schultz said. "I was skeptical (about the chiropractor's device) but a friend who was an orthopedist recommended him. He had a jacket that was like under armor with a zipper that he sewed himself. Velcro on the front and back caused my shoulders to go back. The aching went away instantly."

The shirt, designed to improve posture and reduce muscle fatigue, pulls and tilts rounded shoulders back into an upright position. Correct fit is vital, he said, because the shirt has "neuro-bands" with precise tensions at specific spots to stimulate the nerves that control muscle movement.

"The result is a positive anatomic change that can train the body to realign itself," he said.

The chiropractor told Schultz to wear it for four to six weeks, adjusting it by "listening to what my body was telling me."

Schultz took the garment to spine specialists around the country who said its concept looked promising but there was no research proof that it worked or why. Schultz returned to Orange County, canceled his surgery, bought the patent from the chiropractor and started research to prove the device's effectiveness.

Researchers at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute in Vail, Colo., put the shirt on test subjects and observed their bodies' alignment adjusted itself. The Lexington Clinic in Kentucky found improved reaction time in test subjects wearing the garment. TheKerlan Jobe Sports Medicine Clinic in Los Angeles found measurable increase in shoulder strength in test subjects.

"I wanted this to be the first performance garment backed by clinical evidence," he says.

"Good posture is the key to good health. Headaches and neurological disorders can be caused or enhanced as a direct response to postural strain," Schultz said. "The garments are not just an alternative answer to those who have pain and muscle imbalances around the spine and joints. By keeping the body in alignment it will perform more efficiently."

To the original garment, the Posture Shirt (men's and women's versions, $99.95) Alignmed has added the S3 System, which optimizes scapular motion and improves rotator cuff strength ($345 for end user, and as low as $190 for clinicians who buy in bulk) and Knee Support System ($190).

Schultz added that the garments prevent injuries, increase flexibility and improve sports performance.

Athletes who have tried Alignmed products agree. Tommy Shirley, a pitcher for the Houston Astros, wears an S3 system to strengthen and align his shoulders. He said, "It gave me instant pain relief... It gave my shoulder more strength. It improved my fastball from 88 miles per hour up to 94."

Anita Ortiz, elite ultra runner, said, "The tights give extra knee support...my knees feel as though they have a knee brace on them but without the excess binding or weight. I am able to run longer and faster. The shirt encourages more upright posture and efficient arm swing. In the final hours of an ultra race, a lot of time can be gained by running with better posture."

And Chris del Bosco, a member of the Canadian National Ski Team, said, "wearing the posture shirt helps me to get out of the starting gate inches ahead of my competition. Increased strength and correct alignment are huge advantages in performance."

Alignmed sells its products from its website with company sales consultants working with customers because the right fit is vital to product performance, Schultz says. The company has 10 employees plus 10 consultants.

"Easily 50 percent of our business is people coming to the website looking for solutions for aching body parts," he says. "People do a lot of self-diagnosis."

Schultz has invested $4 million in the company, half his own and half from private investors. He had sold two surgical- and rehabilitation-related companies. Sales have been doubling every two months for the Posture Shirt, even though Schultz says he's been growing the company slowly.

He used sewing shops in Santa Ana and Huntington Beach to make prototype after prototype.

"I had been involved in making surgical tools, and I wanted garments that would fit people and were easy to use," he says. "I'm pleased with the products we have now. In January, we will have fire retardant materials for the military, and a diet shirt that will help with obesity."

Read more small-business stories at ocregister.com/jan.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7927 or jnorman@ocregister.com