Making a Difference

Aspen Medical Products

25 years ago in Irvine, California, Dan Williamson founded Aspen Medical Products with the primary goal of developing medical products that would make a difference in the lives of patients. Today, the award-winning manufacturer of spine-related products operates internationally, with an Irvine headquarters; offices in Griesheim, Germany and Shanghai, China; and a manufacturing facility in Tijuana, Mexico. Its products are distributed to hospitals, spine surgeons, physical therapist, chiropractors, orthotists, and pain management specialists in all continents.
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Over the last decade, Aspen Medical Products’ revenue has increased six-fold. Dan Williamson, President and CEO, attributes this to the company’s sharp focus on creating life-changing spine-related products, including investing in peer-reviewed research for the products, fostering a positive corporate culture, and cultivating an environment of teamwork at Aspen, which now employs 256 people. The company maintains its values across all facilities, including in the northern Tijuana manufacturing facility where Aspen has been working as of a year and a half ago. The facility is just a two-hour drive from Aspen’s Irvine headquarters.

“We chose it because of its proximity, the labor force, the quality of people we were able to find there. We wanted to make sure their culture is the same as ours to some extent. Obviously, it’s a different country so we understand some things are going to be different, but we want people to be treated the right way,” says Williamson.

“In the part of Tijuana where we operate, the manufacturing turnover is usually at 15 percent. Our average turnover has been between two to three percent, because we’ve created all kinds of programs that mirror their cultural needs as well as the values that we have here in the U.S.,” remarks Chief Administrative Officer Kathryn Gray.

Aspen Medical Products operates under what it calls The Aspen Way, illustrated by three pillars: predictive index, emotional intelligence, and servant leadership. All employees, regardless of department, are trained under the pyramid of The Aspen Way. Within The Aspen Way, the company’s values are: compassion, service excellence, creativity, accountability, integrity, positivity, and striving for full potential.

These values, crucial in the healthcare industry, are always at the forefront when Aspen’s R&D and design staff creates a new product. The company begins by focusing on a particular problem that patients are having and finding a solution that will improve their quality of life.

One such example is the Vista Therapy Collar, launched in early 2017 by Aspen in order to correct Forward Head Carriage or “tech neck,” caused by all the time we spend looking down at our smartphones and keyboards. The product features an integrated air pump that allows patients to achieve the level of compression that works best for their bodies, and a hot/cold therapy pack to treat inflammation and spasms. Wearing the collar for short periods of time, such as twice a day for 20 minutes, gradually helps to re-educate the muscles and retrain the body to maintain good posture.

The Vista Therapy Collar is in high demand and has surpassed company expectations. But with a primary focus on serving patients, Aspen also does not shy away from investing in the development of products with a smaller user base.

“Sometimes, the market is really big and reaches a lot of people. Other times, we’ll develop a product where we know the market isn’t huge, but it’s still the right thing to do and it will make a difference for somebody,” says Williamson. “To give you an example, we designed a product for scoliosis. It’s a product we have probably been working on for over 10 years.”

Winner of the 2015 Spine Technology Award, the Peak Scoliosis Bracing System is designed to enhance the quality of life of those who have suffered from scoliosis for a number of years. Aspen Medical Products decided to develop this unloader brace after being advised that there wasn’t any effective way for adults to find relief for their scoliosis in the current market, resulting in most scoliosis patients simply being offered pain medication that treats the symptom rather than aiding the patient in regaining proper posture.

“It was a forgotten market for a long time,” Williamson recalls. “Even with physiotherapy and other treatments, results did not address many of the adult scoliosis patient’s difficult symptoms. Our braces now work in conjunction with other treatments to help patients return to more normal life activities. With the brace we’ve designed, we believe we have helped the patients get out of bed, be active, and reduce their medication, if not get rid of it.”

Williamson, who was the 2017 winner of the Orange County EY Entrepreneur of the Year® Award, is Aspen’s majority owner. He has one long time business partner in the firm, Geof Garth, who serves as the Executive VP of R&D and Clinical Research. “We are almost completely debt-free, and without any outside investments from venture capital firms,” Williamson tells us.

This gives the company the freedom to run in whichever direction it wants, including making long-term investments and donating generously to nonprofits. Aspen is heavily involved in nonprofit sponsorship, namely the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Aspen is the signature sponsor of its annual triathlon and has established a strong relationship with CAF over the last 25 years.

“Our sponsorship of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, an international organization to assist disabled athletes, is a big part of Aspen’s culture. Not only do we raise money and donate to CAF, but we field several teams—this past year seven—that compete in the events. Our employees also volunteer during the annual Aspen Medical Products San Diego Triathlon Challenge (SDTC) to assist in setting up and helping run the event,” Gray describes.

According to its website, CAF’s mission is to “provide opportunities and support to people with physical challenges, so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics,” as this boosts self-esteem and enhances quality of life for athletes of all levels. It is a cause near and dear to Williamson’s heart. In fact, in honor of Aspen and CAF’s 25th anniversary this year (both organizations are the same age), Williamson tells us that they will likely co-organize an event.

Aspen is also a partner with Mercy Ships, an organization that uses hospital ships and volunteer medical personnel to bring health services to those who do not have access to care. In addition to monetary support, Aspen provides Mercy ships with supplies for those in need.

To be sure, Aspen values its corporate environment of encouragement and positivity. “One of the things we are known for is our corporate culture. We are consistently rated as a top place to work in California and in our area. We do a lot of things with our employees to create a positive work environment and strengthen the relationships with our employees and their families,” adds Gray.

Every year, the team goes on a trip together, with a guest of their choosing, to celebrate meeting financial targets and incentives, and to give recognition to employees who have performed well. This year, the trip will be to Coronado Island, on the San Diego Bay. “We want to show our gratitude for what the employees have done for Aspen, because they are the company,” Williamson states.

As the company’s first quarter-century in business comes to a close, Williamson looks forward to continuing to work on products that will make a difference in the healthcare industry, even if the results are not immediately present. His approach to business is one of long-term thinking, where money comes second to producing value for the medical community.

“Our primary focus is on developing products that will change people’s lives. We make decisions on those products based on what we think is the right thing for the patient, the user of the product. We don’t have to answer to anybody but ourselves, so we will spend the money today if we know the benefits are going to be out there four to five years from now. We are always focused on the best things for our customers, and we’ll make the investments to do it. If you do the right thing, the money will follow,” he says.

Every year, Aspen’s goal is to release at least three new products. Aspen is continuing to expand its international presence—particularly in Europe and Asia—and this year, the team is focusing on Europe, creating aesthetically designed spinal health products with both function and style.

“We designed several new products for our European market. It’s a little bit different than North America in that they are very into fashion. We spent many years observing trends in Europe and then developed products for this market that are unique and use our patented technology,” Williamson reveals.

In addition to expanding its product line, Aspen Medical Products is also looking into reaching out to new markets, including non-medical brace markets such as sports or industrial. “We would like to evaluate these markets and use the technology and knowledge that we have in the medical field to make a change. There are a lot of opportunities out there, and we want to stay focused on what we do well,” says Williamson.

Healthcare facilities can stay up-to-date on Aspen’s latest product developments by visiting the company website.