Open Up Have you ever

by francine Hardaway on August 14, 2003

Open Up
Have you ever caught yourself banging an applesauce jar against the edge of your kitchen counter? Opening a bottle of nail polish with your teeth? These activities do not make a pretty picture, but people do them every day. Long ago, I had a jar opener that attached to the top of the jar and provided some extra leverage for the strong-minded but weak-fingered. But it wasn�t really adjustable, and it only did certain kinds of jars. So I regularly did those things, risking my front teeth and my kitchen counter. But not anymore.

Of course somebody has invented a product to solve this problem, especially since hundreds of thousands of people have arthritis. Organizations like the Arthritis Foundation have educational programs that teach people to live with limitations on their strength or their range of motion.

But I found out about this �jarring� new technology, the battery-powered Open Up, from Erika Feinberg, one of the most dynamic exciting businesswomen I�ve ever met. She just gave me one.

Erika and her husband Larry Fugleberg bought a small sleepy company called Independent Living Products ( last year, and have re-launched the company as a powerhouse for people who want to continue to live independently even though they are aging, impaired, or even just recovering from surgery. They have only one retail store, but they have leveraged their technology backgrounds into an online direct mail catalogue of items that range from writing implements to exercise equipment. They also own the domain name

You walk into their showroom in Scottsdale and it isn�t your usual home health store selling wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches. Rather, it�s a toyshop of life-enhancing products: a talking remote control for the TV, a light switch enlarger, magnifying mirrors, highly-designed large-faced talking wrist watches, and comfortable supports and pillows.

Erika and Larry lovingly arrange these products into gift baskets with names like �so close and yet so far,� (full of reach extenders) and �kits� like the Magnified Magnificence Kit, the Steady Hands Kit, and the Still Stirrin�Things up Kit. As a result of this creativity, they�ve been asked to drive the gift shop strategy for the Mayo Clinic and co-brand their catalogue with a large pharmaceutical company.

They source products from all over the world, making deals that allow them to bring over 10,000 related products to market at affordable prices. They purposely don�t take Medicare reimbursement so they can sell products less expensively than Medicare providers must: Medicare reimburses at Manufacturers� Suggested Retail Price, so most providers charge full freight. Independent Living Products prides itself on its value as well as its innovative products.

Another market segment for Independent Living Products is the workplace, where ergonomics is all the rage as employers try to control Workmens Compensation costs and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Currently Independent Living Products is in talks with Maricopa County, which has offered to partner with the company on products that deal with injury prevention.

One of the coolest products I saw today was the Underwater Treadmill, a piece of exercise equipment designed to be used in a pool for water aerobics. They also represent a line of very fancy next-generation Jacuzzi tubs, including several that have the Restoration Hardware retro look but are therapeutic. The Balneo Cella is the only therapeutic claw foot tub on the market.

This is classy stuff, made for discriminating Boomers. I saw a device that ties your shoes if you can�t bend over, and one that helps you tip a kettle to pour hot liquids. To me, with my full range of motion, they appear quaint, though logical.

But the bottom line on these products is that they will be more and more in demand as the health care system becomes overwhelmed by elderly people with chronic diseases. The only way to control costs under those conditions is to keep people at home as long as possible, and keep them independent. And the best way to do that is to provide assistance devices.

While Larry and Erika are mission-driven, they are not without business acumen. Looking at the home medical products industry, Larry and Erika decided that this was an industry ripe for a paradigm shift: there was no market leader, there was a growing need for a single source that could be trusted to provide quality and value, there was turmoil in the entire health care space, and there was a rapidly expanding market. So they took their previous entrepreneurial experience, combined it with their highly developed social consciousness, and embarked on the �social venture� that is Independent Living Products.

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