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the challenge

Bob Garrish, left, and Chris Cowper-Smith of Nova Scotia burned through dozens of prototypes before they settled on their spring-loaded knee brace.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

It started with knee trouble. Neuroscientist Chris Cowper-Smith had runner's knee, and engineer Bob Garrish had osteoarthritis in his. Traditional braces offered stability but were of little help for their mobility issues. So when a startup course brought them together in 2012, the Nova Scotians paired up to solve a problem that plagued both of them.

"We wanted to build a spring-loaded knee brace that could directly augment and enhance the user's strength and mobility," says Mr. Cowper-Smith. "Implementing that on a compact and powerful scale, to create a product that would actually lift your body weight, was very difficult."

The pair have burned through dozens of prototypes. Their company, Spring Loaded Technology Ltd., now backed by more than $5-million in public and private investment, will begin shipping their patented "bionic" power-boosting braces this month. They have taken more than 300 orders.

The potential customer base is massive and includes athletes, soldiers and people born with movement impairments. But Spring Loaded is still a startup, and prioritizing so many target markets can be a daunting task.

Both co-founders are PhD candidates. Chief executive officer Mr. Cowper-Smith is "95 per cent done" with his neuroscience studies, while Mr. Garrish, the chief technology officer, is earning his mechanical engineering doctorate. He's also something of a serial entrepreneur, having run his own machine shop before Spring Loaded and his studies got in the way.

They started off in a garage but have since expanded to two shops in a Dartmouth industrial park and a total of 17 full-time employees. Sitting in Mr. Cowper-Smith's office at their main shop, the pair, both bearded in blue jeans and Blundstone boots, describe their mission as they play with prototypes.

"We knew we wanted to make a spring-loaded knee brace that would store energy when you bend your knees and release energy when you extend your legs," Mr. Cowper-Smith says. Working with another co-founder who has since left, they spent four months in Dalhousie University's Starting Lean course to see if there was product-market fit. There was, so they incorporated Spring Loaded the day after the class ended.

The brace had to fit under most pants, so they had to cram a lot of technology into very little space. Many entrepreneurs have tried to build a similar brace, Mr. Cowper-Smith says, which "can gently help push your heel forward while walking, but they certainly couldn't lift you up."

Their first prototypes used steel springs, which didn't have enough mechanical power, then polymer springs, which were inefficient. They found much greater success with hydraulic "liquid spring" technology, which harnesses the unlikely compressibility of silicone to lower and lift body weight. Their first liquid-spring prototypes lasted only five brace compressions before they would leak. But Spring Loaded's latest models are expected to survive at least 10 years of regular use.

The two entrepreneurs could pursue many market segments. On top of government and venture-capital funding, they received a $1-million contract from the Canadian military in March. But they see a fork in the road ahead.

They could take the athletic route, marketing braces for performance enhancement and injury rehab, competing as a premium product against existing brands. Or they could brand them as a new solution for people with movement disabilities, leg tremors or muscle weakness stemming from disorders such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. Spring Loaded wants to do both, but each requires a careful, tailored approach, and their team is still small.

"We have the chance to out-compete all the others in these huge markets of athletics and osteo," Mr. Garrish says. "And on the other hand, we have a chance to be a benevolent dictator in these smaller markets where other braces can't serve them at all.

"We have the chance to be a monopoly on one side and the strongest competitor on another."

The Challenge: How can Spring Loaded Technology refine its target market?

Michael Beckerman, chief executive officer of the health-care marketing firm Ariad, Toronto

Countless garage-started businesses have failed because they couldn't effectively bring their product to market. Don't get distracted and fragment your efforts. Spring Loaded needs to lock in on the athletic-performance enhancement market, competitors be damned. Follow a strategy where you can put your brand at the top of the athletic pyramid and customers who aspire to be at the top will see your product as the way to get there.

One way to do that is for Spring Loaded to piggyback on the excitement for events like the Paralympic Games and the Prince Harry-sponsored Invictus Games. Sponsor some high-performing "key influencer" para-athletes and have them serve as spokespeople. Amplify your message with content that will connect both rationally and emotionally with your audience and give your spokespeople opportunities to provide insight into how the product helps them perform at the highest level.

Niraj Dawar, marketing professor, Ivey Business School, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.

Startups don't just build products – they build markets. The two founders must consider the amount of time, costs and resources required to build markets. They need to prioritize. Since they're probably not initially producing at a large scale, the cost per unit is going to be quite high. They need to target markets that have the willingness and ability to pay that high cost. Only later, once they've scaled production and unit costs have scaled down, can they target markets that are more price-sensitive.

What's the growth rate in this segment? If it's growing fast, it offers opportunities for new players to enter. If it isn't growing fast, even if it's large, new players will find it harder to break in because existing players can tie up the market. They should ask if they have significant competitive advantage over other players. Some might find they have a gap in the sense that their product is a big leap forward – competitors may not catch up with them very quickly. They need to ask themselves: In which market segment are we most likely to sustain that lead for a period of time?

Aneela Zaib, founder and chief executive officer, Emergitel, a staffing company that focuses on the telecom and IT markets, Richmond Hill, Ont.

Understanding the profitability and demand in both market segments is essential. The pros and cons of being a monopoly versus a strong competitor are things to take into consideration as well. Whichever market segment has a larger demand is the one Spring Loaded should gear toward.

How much business can you generate based on previous data and current demand? Should you become a strong competitor, who is to say that your other competitors will not step their game up and continue to try to match your levels? Being a monopoly in the market firstly gives you control over that sector. It puts your company's name on the map and gives it light and exposure in the knee brace business.

I began my recruitment company because I had identified and understood exactly what the market lacked, and what services were severely sought after. After targeting these things, goals were set to help achieve these targets, which I believe were essential to our success. If Spring Loaded were to similarly undergo this brainstorming and thinking process, I believe many benefits would come as a result.


Expand your influence

Hire high-performing "key influencer" athletes and have them serve as spokespeople.

Focus on top-end customers

Go after markets that have the willingness and ability to pay the high cost of early production units.

Study the market carefully

In which segment are they most likely to sustain a lead for a period of time?

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.