Spark of Genius: Walk Tall and Innovate

We recently came across this article about Dan Horkey, a Kitsap SCORE client, written by Alex Camarota of the US Patent and Trademark Office, Office of Innovation Development. Turns out there are a lot of good articles to read and plenty to learn at the USPTO website.

Innovation changes lives every day.

It makes many of our daily tasks easier, more efficient, or more affordable. But sometimes it does more. Sometimes an invention has the power to not only change lives, but to give people back a life.

Dan Horkey’s life changed drastically and suddenly in 1985 at the age of 21. A motorcycle accident had left him with an amputated left leg below the knee. After a lengthy recovery, he received a prosthetic leg and began the arduous task of learning to walk and function with it. It was the mental challenges, however, that proved most difficult to surmount.

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“I sought to cover up my disability,” said Dan. “I didn’t want others to know, and I wanted to avoid a lot of the questions I would get—like, how did you lose your leg?—when I was transitioning from crutches to a prosthetic.”

Dan lost more than his leg in the accident. While doctors, physical therapists, and rehabilitation therapists could help him adjust to the various physical challenges, they had little to offer that might help him accept this new, foreign part of his body or regain his self-esteem. His response was to conceal it with a fake skin cosmetic cover. 

At the time of his accident, Dan had been a carpenter, and before that he’d grown up on a farm. He was accustomed to physical labor, but it was now a challenge to work at the same level he was used to. The advice he received from rehabilitation specialists was to retrain and take a desk job—a difficult pill to swallow, but he did what was necessary to make ends meet. For many years, Dan helped manage his family’s construction business, gaining a lot of important business experience in the process. In public, though, he continued to hide his prosthetic.

In 2002, an opportunity opened up for Dan to work at a prosthetics manufacturing firm making custom prosthetics. It was during this opportunity that he realized he didn’t have to accept his prosthetic’s appearance anymore; he could change it, and he was now learning how to do it.

“I wasn’t going to let the prosthetic define me anymore,” said Dan.

Dan conceived the idea to infuse prosthetics and orthotic braces with art using vibrant, durable designs, colors and a chroming system. Essentially, it would be a way to personalize—or tattoo—prosthetics. He just needed to develop a process for applying the paint, which he eventually created by adapting automotive airbrushing techniques and materials.

The very first image Dan created for his own prosthesis was flames, which represented the burning sensations that he felt after his leg was amputated.

Right away, Dan knew something had changed. When he was out in public, people no longer gawked or asked questions. Instead, they told him how cool his leg looked.

“It made me walk taller,” he said. “I’m proud to show this now, and I’m not hiding it.”

Dan explained that not only does prosthetic tattooing change the perception of the amputee, it also changes the perception of onlookers.

“It can change an able bodied person’s mindset of people that are disabled. They see the artwork, and the best thing, instead of asking anything or not saying anything, is they compliment you on your art. They are no longer avoiding eye contact.”

After realizing the process he created was unique and something nobody else was doing, Dan found a patent attorney to help him protect his intellectual property. He received U.S. patent no. 9,032,606 for “systems and methods for personalizing prosthetic and orthotic devices.” The process embodies a method for applying high quality and extremely durable pigments to prosthetic limbs and orthotic braces. The application can encompass solid colors or complex, intricately detailed art.

For Dan’s rapidly growing customers, the responses to their prosthetic tattoos have been universally and overwhelmingly positive. Whether it is simply a color that happens to be the prosthetic-wearer’s favorite or a patriotic mural featuring the stars and stripes and a bald eagle, each prosthetic that Dan tattoos is a personal expression for the wearer. In making that statement, a transformation occurs. The prosthetic is no longer just an object attached to their body; it becomes an extension of who the person is.

There are added benefits, too. On a regular basis, people approach Dan to compliment his leg, and before they know it, they are engaged in conversation and moving on to different subjects.

“It’s an icebreaker,” he said. “It’s a way to meet someone new.”

One memorable design Dan completed for a customer mimics the machine arm of the famous T-800 cyborg from the popular “Terminator” films. Though powerfully ironic, it also reveals the wearer’s sense of humor and determination.

“Art is really healing,” said Dan.

While Dan’s customers come from all walks of life—firefighters, retirees, single moms—one segment in particular is responding well: combat-wounded veterans.

“I’ve had soldiers call me from Walter Reed, right in the hospital,” said Dan. According to him, they are eager to get back on their feet as soon as possible and do something to take control of their injuries.

Dan is currently in discussion with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and members of Congress to bring the process to all veterans who desire to customize their prosthetic devices.

“I’ve always been in the business of helping people,” said Dan. “I guess that is where I get my nature, you know, my inner soul.  And now I’ve found something that can help people feel better, and change their whole outlook on their new life.”

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