Arlington, Texas

Founder and CEO Johnny Ross sees innovation as the key to better medical outcomes.

Photos Bart Taylor

Like many entrepreneurs, Ross started his company due to a perceived need — in his case, a deeply personal one. In 2007, Ross underwent a total knee reconstruction, an operation necessitated by a multitude of high school and college sports injuries.

Following his procedure, Ross had to endure a lengthy rehabilitation process that included weight bearing and range of motion exercises. The regimen gradually increased the amount of weight Ross brought to bear on his reconstructed knee, but he encountered a problem: He found it difficult to estimate the true load he was placing on his recovering limb. Further, the required range of motion exercises were measured by a hand-held device that could be unduly affected by personal biases or inattention.

Ross also realized his surgeons and physical therapists didn’t really have reliable data sets on his progress — or even know whether he was even doing his exercises faithfully and correctly. Given that proper rehabilitation is essential for most surgical outcomes, it got Ross to thinking: There had to be a better way.

It turns out there was — but only because Ross, formerly a senior executive with Johnson & Johnson, made it so. In 2008, Ross founded MedHab to manufacture wearable remote technology devices that monitor health, wellness, and sports performance.

Wearable health technology, of course, has been around for a while: think Fitbit. But as the sector has evolved, the trend has gone from the general to the specific — and from largely unverified toward validated and regulated data accrual and transmission.

“Early wearable technology basically tried to do too much,” says Ross. “The devices were monitoring 24/7, there was data all over the place, and much or most of it was inaccurate. So we’ve been moving from daily and unregulated use to the clinical space, which has necessitated companies working with the FDA to assure the devices are working as intended and that the data they produce is accurate. As a result, the technology is much better these days.”

MedHab currently markets three devices: the Steprite, the RPM2, and the MyNotifi Rx. The Steprite is a response to the deficits Ross experienced in his own knee rehabilitation: it captures highly accurate measurements on body weight, pressure, gait, and lower extremity flexibility. This dense, quantified data is then transmitted to a HIPAA-secured server at MedHab, where it can be accessed by physicians and physical therapists.

“They can use the information to monitor progress, ensure that exercise and therapeutic goals are met, and adjust rehabilitative protocols as necessary,” says Ross.

The RPM2 is a training device that assesses force, gait, and range of motion. Worn in the shoe, the RPM2 lets coaches closely monitor athlete performance, adjusting training strategies to develop optimal strength and speed. Ross collaborated with celebrated sprinter Michael Johnson — who won four Olympic gold medals and eight World Championship gold medals in his career, and once held world record times in the 200-meter, 300-meter, and 400-meter events — on the design of the device.

“We visited Michael’s performance center in McKinney [Texas], and he later called me up,” recalls Ross. “He said, ‘Hey, Johnny, it’s Michael,’ and at first I went, ‘Yeah, yeah, right — who is this really?’ because I didn’t believe him.”

But Johnson finally convinced Ross he was calling, and the two struck up a partnership. “Michael helped us understand that it’s all about the correct distribution between speed and power,” says Ross “If a triathlete generates too much power, for example, he won’t finish the race. So we designed RPM2 to measure step time, ground contact time, flight time, power, and cadence in milliseconds. It allows you to graph out an athlete’s performance, measuring both legs, for every second of an event, whether it’s a 100-meter sprint or a marathon. A coach can review that data and determine, say, the left leg needs to be strengthened to optimize performance and reduce injury risk.”

MyNotifi Rx is a wholly automatic fall detection device — a marked improvement over most of the detection devices currently on the market, which must be manually activated by the user. “Falls are the number one cause of death among the elderly, and if you’re incapacitated or unconscious, you’re not going to be able to push that button,” observes Ross. “Our device is worn on the wrist rather than on a lanyard, and is activated automatically by a fall, sending texts to family members, friends, and health care providers. It just provides far greater security than standard devices.”

Additionally, MyNotifi Rx is programmed with 38 range-of-motion and strength-building exercises for the lower extremities, helping seniors maintain the good conditioning required to avoid falls.

Though Ross and his staff have demonstrated profound acumen in both identifying needs and developing appropriate technologies, he emphasizes the company couldn’t have succeeded without some help — specifically from the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC), a public/private partnership that helps manufacturers in the state with everything from grant acquisition to regulatory and compliance strategies.

TMAC is an affiliate of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology; the institute is charged with aiding small and medium-sized businesses in all U.S. states and Puerto Rico. In the past year, MEP centers collaborated with 27,574 manufacturers, contributing to $13 billion in sales, $2.7 billion in cost savings, $4.9 billion in client investments, and the support of 105,748 jobs.

“They helped us on so many levels,” says Ross, who now serves as TMAC’s Chairman. “One example — we had a work agreement pending with the Veterans Administration. But it was hung up because some of our manufacturing was in Vietnam, and that was a country the VA was concerned about in terms of possible technology and information transfer — it was a security risk. So I picked up the phone and called Mark Sessumes, the executive director at TMAC at the time, and explained our problem.”

Sessumes investigated the issue and told Ross that MedHab could be considered a priority manufacturer because it produced devices that allowed the remote monitoring of COVID patients. “So Mark was able to get us a grant on that basis, part of which went to finding a contract manufacturer suitable to the VA,” says Ross. “And he found Cypress Technologies in Leander, Texas — just down the road from us near Austin. TMAC did all the vetting on equipment, credentials, and certifications — we just interviewed them and negotiated a price point. When we told the VA what we’d done, they awarded us a five-year contract. Now, everything we produce is 100 percent American-made — and about 90 percent of what we make is manufactured right here in Texas.”

TMAC also helped MedHab hit required FDA benchmarks for the same contract, says Ross. “They do so much for manufacturers in Texas — and you can say the same thing for any MEP center,” Ross says. “That includes all assessments, securing grants, any kind of certification. And because they’re federally funded, you can’t find a better price on consultation. For us, they’re a trusted advisor. I’d urge any manufacturer in this state who’s planning a project or an expansion to at least give them a call. People don’t really understand how much TMAC can do for them.”

Challenges: “Like everyone else, we’re facing real supply chain challenges,” Ross says, “and I anticipate that will remain the case for eight months to a year.”

Opportunities: “We’re always working on our product line,” says Ross, “and we already have provisional patents and are in design for two new devices. One is for multiple clinical measurements, and the other is a retail security device.”

Needs: “Labor is our most significant need,” Ross observes. “We find qualified people, we interview them, we offer them jobs — and they ghost us. Why? I think a lot of people may be collecting unemployment and doing odd jobs on the side for cash. In any case, I don’t know how long it can be sustained. I’m assuming — hoping — that sooner or later, people will have to go back to work.”