Duluth-based medical device maker goes international
Ann McKie remembers the moment she began to leave behind a comfortable, professional life and steer into the unpredictable worlds of business and innovation.
She was working as an occupational therapist and driving home to Duluth from the Cromwell residence of an infant client who had suffered partial paralysis on one side.
"Babies can have strokes, too," she said.
Following the visit, McKie was troubled by having supplied the boy with a thumb splint from the marketplace which was too bulky. She couldn't fit a toy into the boy's hand so that he could hold it. She also knew he needed to work the hand early, or risk relying too much on his more competent limb.
"I said a prayer as I left there and asked for help," McKie said. "By the time I got to Thompson Hill, I could see the design in my mind for a different kind of splint."
Conceived in 1993 using scissors, a pattern cut from a paper towel, a piece of neoprene, needle and thread, McKie Splints made its first sale in 1997, and is now more than 21 years old.
Three years ago, when she added her first employee, the business grew out of McKie's home in West Duluth and into an office in downtown Duluth — at DNT Center (424 W. First St.), home to the News Tribune and other outlets in the Duluth Media Group.
"The functionality of it, and the concept of assisting weak muscles through design has sort of infiltrated my thinking," said McKie, who is a full-time owner now and no longer works as an occupational therapist. McKie comes from a family filled with both engineers and nurses, and agrees she seems to have split the difference.
"I'm a hybrid," she said.
McKie has shipped her splints to 35 states domestically, and also sells products internationally, with distributors in Australia, Canada, Spain and, maybe soon, South Korea. McKie said her business does roughly $250,000 annually.
"It's a very well-known splint in the field," said Jason Goulet, a pediatric occupational therapist at Essentia Health-Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center in Duluth. "One of the biggest features is its low-profile. It leaves a lot of the hand open so a child can still learn through a system of touch."
McKie Splints' most-popular splint, its thumb splint, is a customized neoprene strap which encompasses the thumb and wraps around the wrist in the way that athletic tape is used. For infants and other people with impairments such as cerebral palsy, the thumb can end up tucked across the palm, making for a less functional hand. Use of the splint returns the thumb to its natural position, and allows wearers to perform skills such as picking up a coin.
"I would say most of the day he's wearing it," said Brittney Franklin, talking about her 11-month-old son Joseph, who was born premature to Brittney and her husband, Karl, who live on London Road in Duluth.
Joseph is learning to live with a diagnosis of spastic hemiplegia, which results in a tightening of his right side. His right thumb folds into the palm and the soft McKie Splints device allows him to open his extremity to a world of grabbing, pinching and play.
"It's huge for him," Brittney said. "He would want to move or play, and he would cry and get frustrated and give up on playing. His hand started to be stationary. He was not going to use it. Now, he's bringing his hands together in the middle and can manipulate a ball or a toy."
It's the kind of story, McKie, 68, has grown accustomed to hearing and watching unfold. For years before she sold a single unit, the meticulous McKie tested her splints on her clients, studied their effectiveness for an advanced degree in therapeutic science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and patented the splints with the U.S. government. She makes her splints from a neoprene which is lighter than the competition, and with an emphasis on keeping the wearer's hand as free of material as possible.
"I wanted my clients to wear my splints, because I knew it was going to work for them," McKie said. "If I put something else on, I knew it wasn't going to work."
McKie described occupational therapists as problem solvers who do what they can to make people's lives more independent. Touring her office is a small wonder — an international operation, including warehouse, writ small. She can fit hundreds of splints into a plastic bin the size of a junk drawer. Her entire inventory is found in stacks of plastic bins around the office.
She's got two employees, including an office manager in Dyami Quast, who is helping the company grow as McKie Splints' products expand into other markets. McKie herself uses splints on either hand to protect her skin from blisters when she kayaks.
"It's nice to know that people are being helped by this product and that there's demand," Quast said.
Most McKie Splints sales are conducted online, through vendors or the company's website, mckiesplints.com.
Neither Brittney Franklin nor Goulet were aware the products were made in Duluth when they first encountered the splints.
"I was ordering one when I saw it was made in Duluth and thought, 'This is great,'" Franklin said. "I would love to meet her."
Goulet met McKie at an occupational therapists convention in Chicago — well after her splints had become popular among Polinsky's therapists.
"She's fantastic with the customer-service portion," Goulet said. "These things are so customized, measured to a fraction of an inch. You're not ordering from a huge company. You can talk to her. She gets back to you with a very quick turnaround — and I don't believe it's because we're in the same town."
Goulet said some children he works with will use splints throughout their lives and just keep getting larger ones. Others need splints for a finite amount of time, to assist with a boost in development.
McKie Splints uses a Duluth-based woman for its sewing and a die-cutting company based in Fridley to cut templates from sheets of neoprene for customization later.
"It seems to me we're going through a growth spurt right now," said McKie, who has yet to apply her methods for splints to body parts other than the hands and arms.
Two years ago, at an international conference, a pediatric psychiatrist from South Korea approached McKie and said, "I want this for my children."
The doctor bought a sizing kit. A year later, McKie Splints started getting orders from South Korea. On a busy day, the company will ship out 20 packages, McKie said.
"We're sort of reaching the limit of what we can do without automation," McKie said. "We can still fulfill same-day orders, but we seem to be evolving."