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Women Taking the Lead -- Encore Path's Kris Appel

Kris Appel of encorepath - Arianne Teeple
Kris Appel of encorepath - Arianne Teeple

At first glance, Kris Appel may seem like an unlikely CEO of a medical devices company.

She didn't have business experience, a background in healthcare, or even an idea for a breakthrough technology. But she knew she wanted to start a company, so she did just that.

"I knew I wanted to create something," Appel says.

Now, Appel runs Baltimore-based Encore Path Inc., which makes a device for improving arm function and range of motion in stroke survivors. In the just over two years since incorporating, Appel employs five people and has her sights set on expanding her product distribution overseas.

Appel, a Minnesota native who lives in Baltimore, worked for the National Security Agency for 17 years before setting out to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams. In 2002, she left NSA to work for a technology company in Hunt Valley while pondering her prospects.

"I wanted to start a business, but I didn't have a business idea," she says. She attended a few franchising shows, but that option had little appeal — she wanted to create something from nothing.

A meeting of the minds

In 2006, she joined the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's ACTiVATE program, which aims to commercialize innovations by training mid-career women to create technology-based startup companies. The idea — known as tech transfer — is to get technology being developed by Maryland's universities to market, while fostering budding female entrepreneurs.

ACTiVATE's mission seemed tailor made for Appel and budding business owners like her who have the passion and smarts to start a company, but need the support — and the product.

There she came across the device that would soon become her flagship product. The device, developed by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, controls arm movement by reactivating central neuromuscular pathways through repetitive training. Called the Tailwind, it's a non-invasive device that requires a person to move his arms along a track.

In clinical studies of the device, severely impaired patients improved functions in both arms, allowing them to do support functions such as pushing and pulling, says Sandy McCombe Waller, who along with Jill Whitall, invented the device.

They've also seen some changes in the brain as a result of using the device, suggesting it has a neural effect, McCombe Waller says. And it's mobile, so patients can do the therapy at home.

Appel quickly began researching the technology and talking with the inventors and stroke survivors.

"I thought it was a great technology. I thought it deserved to be on the market," she says.

Of course, McCombe Waller agreed, though she noted that the inventors are really focused on the scientific side – recognizing the benefits and shortfalls of the device and where it fits in with overall training. "We believe it has a place in therapy," she says. "We'd like to see it become available for clinics to use and patients to use."

A positive step

By May, Appel had left her job and was working full time on her new company, which incorporated in December 2006. Over the next year or so, she would raise money, re-engineer the product, build prototypes, and find a manufacturer. By June last year, the Tailwind was on the market.

"There are always challenges with introducing a new product," Appel says. "We are going through that now, getting it on the market and getting the word out."

Like many entrepreneurs willing to take the risk on a new product, Appel benefited from what she called "excessive optimism."

"I knew it was going to work," she says, so some of the hurdles she faced in the beginning barely slowed her down. She had full confidence in her product.

"I always knew there was another path," she says. "If one door closed, another opened. If there was any challenge, it was finding that next door."

Connecting the dots

Although raising money to bring the product to market was tough, she didn't shy away from finding the right fit for her company. She says she walked away from a couple of investment offers because she didn't like the terms. She knew there would be better opportunities, and there were.

She also worked hard to network, shaking hands and having conversations with anyone who would listen about her product and her vision for the company.

David Fink, program manager of ACTiVATE, calls Appel "persistent," adding, "She's one of the best networkers you'll meet. She's great at it."

Appel says she makes a point of asking for something from just about every one she met — a contact, advice, a report that would otherwise cost her money. People are happy to help, she says, and as an entrepreneur you just can't be afraid to ask.
"I think I have a lot of passion, and it comes across. People see that," she says. "I have had conversations with total strangers where at the end they say, 'Wow, I want to work with you.' It's contagious."

Appel contends that none of her success would have been possible without the support she has received from the community. She credits the ACTiVATE program her helping her forge connections with vital mentors and funding sources. Indeed, Fink describes her as the "poster child" for the ACTiVATE experience. Everything seemed to click for her, he says — the proven product, the funding, and her own willingness to learn.

Appel also connected with other women in business and technology in the area for networking and training opportunities.

"Baltimore and Maryland are great places for entrepreneurs," she says. "I was able to tap into a lot of resources…. You can learn a lot of form existing members that are already in the field."

And like other local start-ups, her efforts have benefited the area as well — she created five new jobs, has her manufacturing done in Maryland, and relies on local companies for services such as accountants and attorneys and even the specialized boxes she uses to ship the device.

One piece Appel didn't anticipate was how rewarding the particular product would be. She relishes the e-mails from users who recount their success with the device, the stroke survivors who can now hug their spouses again.

"I didn't set out to create a company that would help people, but that was a great part of it," she says.

Another unexpected element? The speed with which her company has grown and already expanded to international distribution. Appel has already received interest abroad, and she now wants to find distributors who can handle the overseas sales.

Distribution in the U.S. could also burgeon as Appel considers more distributors in other parts of the country. So far, Encore Path has sold about 100 of the devices and counting. "With a distributor with a presence," she says, "sales could really take off."

Sara Michael, who lives in Remington, is a writer and editor who has written about health, science and technology.

1 Kris Appel with encorepath in Baltimore.
2 The Tailwind arm rehabilitation device.
3 The Tailwind arm rehabilitation device.
4 Kris Appel with encorepath in Baltimore.
Photos by Arianne Teeple
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