Chris Dean is changing the way we look at ankle sprain prevention.
We’ve all seen it: an athlete twists an ankle, and then TV announcers use instant replay to analyze what could have happened.
And over again.
Like most of us, Chris Dean quickly grew tired of watching such replays. But one day, while watching an NBA game at his brother’s house in San Jose, Calif., he started seeing the replay of one player’s ankle roll differently.
“I just got to thinking, there’s got to be something that could stop the ankle as its going over.”
The idea nagged at him. As a long-time basketball player whose own ankles were prone to sprains, and with that replay image still in his mind, he suspected we might be thinking about preventing sprains all wrong.
He spent most of the plane ride home to Boise sketching out ideas. Once home, he tried bringing them to life.
“The first thing I used was some neoprene fabric with a foam rubber ball sewed to it,” Chris explains. “It acted sort of like a kickstand, so as your ankle began to roll, the rubber ball would stop the roll.”
Chris had invented the Ankle Roll Guard, a support that stops one of the most common causes of ankle sprains — inversions, commonly known as “rolling your ankle.”
He tested his idea on himself, strapping his admittedly clunky prototype to his foot and wearing it to his three times a week basketball games.
“It was really ugly at the beginning,” Chris says. “So I just kept improving it.”
After several weeks of play, Chris noticed a difference.
“I knew it was working because I’d tweak my ankle, but never roll it far enough to sprain,” he says. “I had a couple experiences where I really came down funny, but didn’t have any problems.”
He kept iterating, trying to find the best size of foam, and the right way to attach it. It kept working. Even improving.
“I knew I had something. I investigated online to see if there was something else like it, but didn’t find anything,” Chris says. “I couldn’t believe it. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this?”
Not wanting to invest heavily in an idea with no intellectual property protection, Chris filed a patent. Nearly four years later — yes, four years! — he had it.
Chris began working with a product designer to refine the Ankle Roll Guard. “The second prototype worked a little better and was detachable, but it still was not very pretty.”
He pushed forward, contracting with a Hong Kong-based manufacturer to produce thirty of this improved, though far from perfect, design. It wasn’t cheap, but he thought it was very valuable.
“I got a lot of feedback,” Chris recalls. “I kept hearing over and over again that it was too bulky.”
Chris set up a table at Boise’s BamJam, a popular three-on-three basketball tournament. He sold a few, but kept hearing the “too bulky” comments.
He worked with his designer to refine the product while collecting feedback from the industry. He even got Ankle Roll Guard in front of a major sporting goods retailer.
Chris hoped that the idea and patent would be enough to help bring a major distribution partner on board. Instead, while both the athletic trainers and the retailers loved the concept, they questioned how Chris was going to be able to build consumer demand.
“I thought they would’ve been willing to help build demand,” Chris says. “I was wrong. That solidified that I had to build demand for this myself.”
Chris went back to his designer and worked to make the product sleeker and better looking, simplifying the strap, reducing its bulk, and adding design elements like a logo to the Ankle Roll Guard. They re-thought materials and even the manufacturing process.
During this time, Chris also reached out to Idaho State University to conduct some motion analysis testing that would show how well the design worked to prevent ankle rolls.
“I was trying to marry functionality with good looks.” He was eight years into the process with no significant sales.
“I didn’t intentionally choose to go slow,” he explains. “A big part of it was just making sure I had the right product before I invested in a minimum order of 3,000. I wanted that customer feedback. I wanted to be confident that it worked and looked good.”
Eventually he got there. He made his order and began selling the product through physical therapists and podiatrists and to the general public through Amazon.com.
Recently, Chris got his largest order ever from SlamBall, a sports league that combines basketball with trampolines to create a high-flying, almost video-game like sport.
With additional interest from student athletes looking to reduce injuries and a large medical supply company (the product is great at providing extra support for people with ankle instability balance issues), Chris feels like the invention he created to solve his own problem is really on a roll.
More importantly, Chris is energized by the stories he hears of Ankle Roll Guard truly helping people.
“I had the husband of a woman who had been fighting cancer reach out to me and tell me how his wife had been struggling with balance before they found Ankle Roll Guard,” Chris says. “He reached out to say that for the last months of her life the product really helped her. It is very gratifying to know this product helps.”
Chris is happy with his slow and steady success, but is confident that Ankle Roll Guard’s biggest opportunities are still ahead of it.
“Sure, I thought it would’ve taken off quicker, but then again it’s so new, it’s probably got to run its course,” he says. “Like anything this new, it needs some kind of big break.”
In the meantime, Chris is working hard to encourage that “big break” by attending sports tournaments, telling his story to the press, even using Twitter to offer free samples to NBA players who injure themselves (at least one of whom have taken him up on it).
“I’ve invested 10 years already,” he says. “We are just scratching the surface.”
Note: Find more details about the Ankle Roll Guard on their website.
Photography by Chris Ennis.