By GREGORY ZELLER // If the shoe fits, Sharone and Shlomo Piontkowski may soon deliver a medical breakthrough of fashionable proportions.
Sharone, a Port Jefferson native and New York City-based architectural designer, and Shlomo, a retired surgeon who helped pioneer arthroscopy at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital, are developing a special insert that could prevent chronic injuries caused by the most unnatural of human footwear: the high-heeled shoe. A final product is a year away at best, but if it works, expect headlines in everything from The New England Journal of Medicine to Vogue.
The inventors’ journey was inspired by Sharone, who earned a master’s degree in architecture at Columbia University and admits to a long fascination with feet.
“I really love the foot,” she noted. “It’s a very architectural thing, with the two arches and the skin, which is sort of like the outside of a building.”
Her ped-ilection is understandable, considering her father’s work. Shlomo, who also maintained a private sports-medicine practice in Patchogue, worked often with legs; Sharone’s inclinations run a little lower, but the DNA is clearly afoot. Instead of following her father into medicine, however, she focused on her other main interest – design – and opted for architecture. But in 2010, a year after she earned that master’s degree, inspiration struck in the form of a medical journal article: Scientists had created the first 3D foot model.
“Most studies of the foot are about pressure on the surface,” Sharone noted. “This study showed what was happening on the inside, how different forces worked on the tissue and the bone. This idea evolved from that.”
She had another inspiration, of course: Like many women, Sharone is a fan of pumps and other high-heeled footwear, and after wearing such shoes for years, “My feet hurt.”
She’s not alone. A new study by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, published in May by the Journal of Foot and Ankle Injuries, blames high heels for more than 123,000 emergency room-reported injuries between 2002 and 2012, with the rate of reported heel-related injuries nearly doubling in that time. Otherwise healthy women in their 20s were the most likely to be injured, according to the study, followed by women ages 30-39.
More than 80 percent of reported injuries affected the ankle or foot, with just under 20 percent involving the knee, trunk, shoulder, head or neck. While half of the reports involved strains or sprains, fractures accounted for nearly one in five reported heel-related injuries, the study noted.
And none of that even addresses the neuromechanics of walking in heels, which places unnatural strain on muscles and tendons and often leads to long-term musculoskeletal disorders.
A 2012 paper published by India’s Oxford College of Nursing notes that women annually account for about 90 percent of the nearly 800,000 operations performed globally for hammertoes – a deformity of the toe joint in which the toe bends up and then curls downward – and bunions, and suggests “most of these surgeries can be linked back to their high-heeled shoe choice.”
Kim Christensen, a professor and 20-year veteran of chiropractic medicine, repeats that statistic in an article on the Dynamic Chiropractic website and cites “a clear link between the types of shoes worn and the development of abnormal foot conditions.” An article posted by the American Osteopathic Association, meanwhile, notes “the perfect pumps can create the perfect storm for permanent health problems,” and warns of the likelihood of shortened calf muscles leading to back spasms.
Such gruesome truths – plus her own pain – inspired the doctor inside Sharone; the trained designer took it from there. Consulting with her father, the architect called on her skills for rapid prototyping and 3D modeling and set out to battle the evils of high heels.
“It started almost as an art project,” Sharone noted. “I’ve always been interested in science and new types of materials, so I started exploring everything from polymers and gels to nanofibers, and I was able to start modeling something in the computer.”
Five years later, Sharone is still modeling. She and Shlomo have founded an LLC – SyNC NY – and banked one patent already, for a “dynamic wedge system” that can actually be used for a lot of things, the designer noted, but definitely could be “built into a shoe.” Several other patents are pending, she added, including patents for “new types of cushioning for women’s feet.”
With the patents still under review, Sharone didn’t want to reveal too much about the cushioning material (a “soft polymer”) or how it works with the dynamic wedge – which, according to the patent issued in March, facilitates rotation between the front and back sole sections when weight is applied.
But the daughter-and-dad team are confident they have a leg up. Sharone has been trying out early prototypes herself – she has five working models, she said – and is “tweaking, to get it the best it can be.”
The Piontkowskis are also considering options for a clever trademark and looking for outside help to conduct a proof-of-concept study. Beyond that, Sharone noted, “all we need is the funding.”
The entrepreneurs aren’t even sure how much they’ll need to raise to start producing a commercial product, thought they’ve consulted with officials at Stony Brook University’s Center for Biotechnology, who are “helping us polish our investor presentation,” according to Sharone.
The inventor, who now does interior designs and more for a NYC architectural firm, has also met with mentors at New York University’s Luxury Retail Consulting Corp., a function of NYU’s Stern School of Business that offers free startup consultations. Landing a product on retail shelves within the next year isn’t out of the question, Sharone added, though father and daughter are aware they can’t get even a toehold without outside funding.
“We have to see about that,” she said. “Once we have the funding, we can just go.”