Stefan Henry grew up as a big fan of comics and animé, building Legos and yearning to follow in Tony Stark’s footprints as the next Iron Man. A C5-6 SCI at 14 only increased his desire to build an exoskeleton, and today he lives a dual life that Stark would envy: CEO of an assistive device company by day, designer/inventor by night.
How to Kill Time While Building an Exoskeleton
“I’m still designing my exoskeleton, but it’s something that will take a lot of time and money to build and in the meantime, I could be building things to help other people,” says Henry, an engineer by trade.
The first of those things, funding his Tony Stark dream, is an eating tool meant to help those recovering from a stroke and those with low dexterity use utensils independently. There are countless other eating tools, but this one is meant to address frustrations Henry and his fellow quadriplegic Eli Ramos have with adaptive technology.
“If they’re not an eyesore, they’re incredibly expensive for no reason — $60 for two slabs of metal put together. There’s never an in-between,” says Henry.
Together, the two founded Level the Curve to provide that holy trinity: adaptive technology that not only functions but looks good and is inexpensive. Their eating tool costs $25, is 3D print-on-demand and can be customized with any color.
“Since we know the field first-hand, we care more about having all those three things together. Eli and I are both quadriplegics and we’re looking at our competition like, ‘We’re never going to buy this stuff.’ They’re too expensive, they break easily, and often you have to get someone to put them on you for you,” says Henry.
But just because they know the field and live the reality doesn’t mean investors are lining up. Henry, Ramos and their other co-founder, Henry’s nondisabled childhood friend Khan Sakeeb, are used to cold receptions. Undeterred, they’re personally getting the eating tool into the hands of those who can use it, one satisfied customer at a time.
“We get them to try it out, tell us whatever feedback they have and whenever they end up loving it, they just tell other people about it. We’ve really been as grassroots as possible, and so far we’re building a bit of a following,” says Henry.
It’s how they plan to keep going: take their products to hospitals and rehab centers and see if they’ll take it seriously. For anyone that does, they’ll be rewarded because Level the Curve is not a one-trick pony. The Eating Tool is only one of many products they have planned, including portable, telescoping ramps and a device for charging electronics.
“We’re working on this device we call Gia — after a god of energy — and what it does is hook up to your manual chair and when you’re rolling it will actually help you charge your phone or any device you put onto it,” says Henry.
If it sounds like something ripped from the pages of a comic book, Henry will tell you that’s kind of the point.
“If a comic book is what I need to take me to greater heights, well, look what space exploration has done already. We innovate more based off of these things that we dream about and the comics that we read.”
Being Taken Seriously
Henry breaks down the challenge of being a boss with a disability and the very different ways his disability is viewed by his team and by potential investors.
“It’s a funny duality. Among my co-workers, I’m definitely their boss. There’s a brotherhood relationship between myself, my engineers and our support staff. But, when you go out to get investors, you have to work twice as hard to make sure you and your product are taken seriously.
My company is very new. I’m new, and I can sense an instant twinge of judgment around my disability like, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s just getting started and doing things because he thinks he can.’ I have to break that barrier.
A lot of these investors have been around for 20 years. They feel even though the people on our team have lived it, we haven’t designed enough tech. To really be taken seriously we have to go in there, present and show some of the engineering and whatever is necessary for them to believe us.
When we do, they’re completely shocked. You literally hear gasps. It’s funny. But we don’t get to see it enough because we’re often not even taken seriously enough to get in the door. We’re working on getting more people to realize who we are and we’re trying to take a grassroots approach.”
I definitely want to make Professor X’s hoverchair. I don’t know how I’m going to pull that off, but I want to do it. (One of his real products, The Eating Tool, is pictured at right.)
When Not Running a Company:
I work for NY Connects, connecting people with disabilities to services, resources and equipment. It’s really helped me learn who to talk with to bring our products to market.
The Drive to Give Back:
I have a brother and sister. Our upbringing was kind of rough, but I still wanted to be a good example to them. I want to do well and help others do well, so they know what living well looks like.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
I want to know the SCI community better on a ground level, know what the issues are for each population in the different New York boroughs and know how I can help them.