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Fortified for Success : Innovative Brothers Get Leg Up in Sports-Brace Industry

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirty-year-old Jim Castillo so severely damaged his left knee in a automobile accident in 1982 that doctors told him he would have to give up his favorite hobby--skiing.

Castillo, an avid skier, was warned that no brace was good enough to safeguard his weakened knee, which, if re-injured, would have to be replaced with an artificial joint.

So Castillo, a concrete contractor by trade, set out to design a sturdy brace. With welding equipment and steel, he created a device that was anchored to his ski boot. The brace prevented his leg from twisting in a fall.

He tried it a few days later on the snow-covered slopes of Mammoth. It worked fine.

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The next step was tougher. Castillo huddled with his older brother Ed and together they decided to go into the leg-brace business. Ed, who was also in the construction business, chipped in his savings and mortgaged his house to finance the start-up.

Nine years later, Jim and Ed are, respectively, chairman and chief executive officer of Innovation Sports, one of the nation’s top three manufacturers of knee braces for athletes. Last year, the company had about $11 million in sales.

The company claims about a 25% share of the worldwide market for braces designed to prevent knee re-injuries. Innovation Sports products have been used by a long list of professional athletes, including Buffalo Bills football stars Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, both of whom wore braces in January’s Super Bowl.

Innovation Sports is credited by orthopedic surgeons as being one of the first in the industry to produce a lightweight, fashionable brace that athletes would be more apt to wear than leave behind in the closet.

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In 1982, the leading sports brace was made by Lennox Hill, then in New York. It was aluminum-framed, weighed more than 2 pounds and was endorsed by football star Joe Namath, for whom it had been designed in 1969.

With such competition, Jim Castillo labored hard at trying to improve his first model--a cumbersome, steel-framed piece of equipment that weighed 5 pounds.

He even talked to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer at Moffett Naval Air Station in Northern California. The NASA engineer suggested molding the brace from the same material used in the floor of the space shuttle--a sandwich of foam and graphite. The brothers tried various combinations of resins and graphite before coming up with the right mix, one that would provide both strength and lightness. Another challenge was to engineer the brace’s hinges so they would move more like a knee. Jim Castillo said he approached it as a mechanical problem. “I went to the library and got a book on anatomy and looked at knees and how they work,” he recalled.

In October, 1982, the Castillos drove to South Lake Tahoe to show their new brace to Dr. J. Richard Steadman, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee problems and chief surgeon for the U.S. Olympic Ski Team.

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Steadman, who took time out between surgeries to meet the Castillos, was immediately intrigued by the brace, especially how light it was. He invited the brothers to his home that evening to talk, and over the following months, he worked with them to perfect the brace.

Ultimately, Steadman joined Innovation Sports’ board of directors and bought an interest in the company. His daughter, Liddy Lind, is now marketing director, and his son-in-law is company controller.

Most importantly, because of Steadman’s endorsement, the first batch of Innovation Sports braces was immediately sold to 15 Olympic skiers and many other orthopedic surgeons began to try them on their patients.

“Steadman’s endorsement propelled (Innovation Sports) into the business,” said Jeff Regan, senior product manager for Don Joy, a Carlsbad-based subsidiary of Smith & Nephew and a major competitor.

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Lind said that patients, rather than physicians, are more often making the final decision about what brace to use. The result is that, increasingly, companies are competing on the basis of comfort and fashion.

She said that when Innovation Sports’ royal-blue brace hit the market, it was the first brace that was not skin-toned. She added that now, like many other brace manufacturers, the company offers “any color of the rainbow” as well as multi-toned braces, including polka-dot, speckled and striped braces in the colors of high school and professional teams.

“We have an airbrush artist who does all of our art for us,” Lind said. “We are trying to keep the patients happy so they will wear their braces.”

While the bulk of Innovation Sports’ braces are used by athletes, Lind said they are also worn on the job by construction workers and firefighters, and many are sold to the military. Two braces in desert-pattern camouflage were sent to U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia.

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Michelle Gibson, market development coordinator for Lennox Hill, now located in St. Paul, said her company redesigned its brace to look better and weigh less in response to competition from Innovation Sports and others.

“The big question is whether one brace is better than another,” said Dr. Michael Drucker, an orthopedic surgeon in Newport Beach. “As a physician, if you look at the studies, there isn’t much difference among the top-performing braces.”

And that includes Innovation Sports’ C.Ti “signature” model, which is made of graphite and titanium and retails for about $800.

Steadman acknowledged that there is “a lot of similarity” in the current braces on the market. But he said that Innovation Sports plans to soon come out with a second-generation brace that will be much improved.

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In addition to manufacturing braces that are custom-fitted, Innovation Sports created waves in the industry in 1989 when it came out with an off-the-shelf model that could be adjusted to more closely fit the wearer’s leg than previous off-the-shelf products.

The success of Innovation Sports can be measured by its growth. In March, 1983, the company opened in a 4,000-square-foot facility in Irvine. Today it is housed in two buildings with a combined 40,000 square feet.

Among the company’s 110 employees are the entire Castillo family: Jim’s and Ed’s mother, Camilla, works in accounts receivable; their father, Lou, is the company carpenter; and their two brothers, Mike and John, work in computer systems and research and development. Many of the other key personnel are old family friends.

Ed Castillo, who has a college degree in philosophy, runs the company’s day-to-day business, while Jim, who routinely comes to work in a tank top and shorts, generates ideas for new and improved products.

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“It is amazing to think that these guys with no medical background but with intuition and skill at invention were able to put this brace together and form a company,” Steadman said.


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