Barry Katz hurt his ankle.
And then he hurt it again. And again.
That’s how this all started. Katz played basketball seriously from high school through his freshman year of college, and he continued to dabble in the sport through his medical school graduation in ’82 and beyond. During that time, he had a series of ankle sprains. "They were bad sprains," he recalls. One benched him for three months. And as he went through medical school and became a diagnostic radiologist, he continued to think about ankle sprains in a very analytical way.
He hit the books and talked to experts, and he learned a number of things: that a sprained ankle is the most common orthopedic injury (fully 25% of the cases that limp into an orthopedist’s office); that 42% of all basketball injuries are sprained ankles; that there are 9 million ankle sprains per year in the U.S., and over 100 ankle sprains per year in the NBA alone (that’s one out of every three players). "This is a big problem," he says.
As he studied the problem more, he began to realize that sprains are in large part caused by shoes. It’s simple geometry: you have to invert your foot to about 60 degrees to cause a sprain. Barefoot, it’s tough to invert your foot more than 20 degrees. But the way the forces work out, a shoed foot can invert to almost 90 degrees. He asked around, and indeed, podiatrists he talked to confirmed that there was practically no such thing as an ankle sprain incurred while barefoot.
Katz teamed up with an orthopedic surgeon and a podiatrist to devise a way to better secure a basketball shoe to a foot, filing a patent. Then, in 2010, after a trip through business school Ektio, a new brand of basketball shoes, was formed.
The two key features of Ektio shoes are what Katz describes as an "internal brace-slash-tape mechanism" that’s built into the wall of the shoe; this keeps the shoe secured to the foot. On top of that, the shoes feature what Katz calls "outriggers," or little bumper-like features outside of the shoe near the sole, for added stability.
With descriptions like that, I put to Katz the obvious question. Basketball shoes are almost fetishized fashion objects, with cults of "sneakerheads" hunting for the coolest ones. Meanwhile, orthopedic shoes are just about the least cool thing possible.
"We have to thread the needle," acknowledges Katz. But mainly, for the time being, he doesn’t see himself as a competitor to Nike, nor does he expect to unseat Air Jordans anytime soon. Though he’s gotten NBA players to try out his shoes, the NBA and even the NCAA are already so commerce-driven, he says, that no player is likely to wear his shoes. The closest thing Katz has to a celebrity endorsement is a partnership with SlamBall, the stunt sport league that answers the question, "What do you get when you mix trampolines with basketball?" (Ankle sprains, mostly, was the answer, pre-Ektio.)
There’s a much bigger market, he points out, of casual basketball players who simply don’t want to roll their ankles. Katz and co. have initially gotten the word out through ads on ESPN Radio and by approaching doctors at conventions; Ektio also sells at tournaments. Word of mouth has been sufficient to create a growing business; Katz has just sold his 15,000th pair of shoes, including at stores in Europe, Canada, and Japan. A new design of the shoe, "The Barricade," is forthcoming this fall.
Most importantly for Katz, he says his customers are very happy, and that "we’ve virtually eliminated ankle sprains in people that wear our shoe," a claim he backs up with a clinical study performed at Drexel University.
Despite the modest initial aims, does Katz think he could ever make inroads against Nike, which he says owns 95% of the basketball shoe market? Katz says he’d be more than happy to license his technology to Nike or other brands, and is seeking partnerships with manufacturers of hiking boots, military boots, construction boots, and other kinds of performance footwear. He also does think that while he's not likely to steal Nike's crown, he could capture 5% to 10% of that market share by waking people up to the problem of ankle sprains and what he believes is the solution: Ektio.
"The technology is so new and so different," says Katz. "People have just accepted that ankle sprains are a part of life. We’re on an educational crusade to show you don’t have to have ankle sprains."