Athletic training alum turns disability sports experience into successful startup
By Nicole Geary
Disability became part of Marissa Siebel-Siero’s passion for serving athletes when she came to Michigan State University.
She was a high school athletic trainer in New Jersey when she decided to move to East Lansing to enroll in the MSU Kinesiology master’s program, with a concentration on Athletic Training. She was compelled by the program’s distinctive focus on manual medicine and the chance to work with Div. 1 sports.
But it was one required course focusing on adapted physical activity that really set the rest of her career in motion.
“It was life-changing for me,” she said. “I saw a whole subset of the population that I hadn’t worked with before, a group that society really hasn’t provided equality for yet.”
Siebel-Siero began working closely with a national leader in adapted physical activity on the faculty, Professor Emerita Gail Dummer. She became a teaching assistant for the Sports Skills Program, which serves community members with disabilities, and served as a volunteer leader in Michigan’s Special Olympics. That’s where she met her husband, Adam, a fellow MSU athletic training graduate (see below).
With Dummer’s support, she was recognized as Kinesiology Master’s Student of the Year and successfully applied for an internship at the Lakeshore Paralympic training site in Birmingham, Ala., one of few official sites for the U.S. Paralympic team.
She has been on a mission to improve life for athletes with disabilities—especially those who rely on wheelchairs—ever since.
A purpose for business
Siebel-Siero took the knowledge and experience she gained at MSU to a powerhouse in the world of elite wheelchair sports: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
For four years, she worked with up to 40 wheelchair users every day as an athletic trainer for the wheelchair track and women’s wheelchair basketball teams at UI. During that time, she also took courses toward her Ph.D. and began an unlikely business partnership with engineer Scott Daigle.
Daigle and Siebel-Siero met in the Wheelchair Propulsion Lab at UI, where they started collaborating around an idea: What if they could make it easier for people to push their wheelchairs by adding gears?
“I chose athletic training because I wanted to help people. I never wanted to sell anything to anyone,” said Siebel-Siero. “We were very much driven by, ‘Let’s see what we can do to make people’s lives better.’ That was our focus through this whole journey.”
The pair created the first prototype product and took home second place in a local competition. The prize came with $6,000 and space in an incubator for start-ups. In 2010, they became a company: IntelliWheels.
“OK, cool, so now what do we do?” Marissa recalled. Neither of them knew much about building a company or gaining investors. But they knew their stuff—Siebel-Siero’s understanding of movement for wheelchair users and Daigle’s expertise in biomechanics—and they didn’t give up. They also worked together with a ready pool of wheelchair users who provided feedback to keep improving.
Slowly, the funding started to come in. Then, in 2014, they got the news they had been waiting for. The National Institutes of Health selected their team for a $1.5 million grant.
“It’s probably one of the only times that I actually cried,” said Siebel-Siero. “Prior to that we weren’t sure we would actually be able to develop the company in a grassroots, bottom-up mode.”
They hired additional engineers and completed the geared wheel product called IntelliWheels Easy Push, which gave some people the ability to push themselves for the very first time. Sales of Easy Push never took off, however, because it was difficult for customers to get health insurance coverage for the item.
“The tradition in the durable medical space is to look at what insurance will pay for and design for that,” said Daigle. “What we’ve tried to do is take a different approach, and really put the user first.”
“We’ve been able to take what we learned from creating our first product, and move through the innovation cycle much faster,” Siebel-Siero added.
Their second product, ergonomic handrim grips called Fit Grips, moved from idea to product in about 18 months. Within seven months on the market, they sold more than 1,000 pairs in 13 different countries.
Taking on big challenges
The IntelliWheels team continues to dream up ideas to transform life on two wheels. And their latest innovation landed Siebel-Siero in the national spotlight.
In March 2016, she was one of only 10 female entrepreneurs selected from more than 2,000 entries to present at the InnovateHER Business Challenge in Washington, D.C. The last to compete, she had two minutes to pitch their product, called Tinker, in a live televised event with $40,000 on the line.
She didn’t win.
But the experience led to valuable industry connections for Tinker, a software platform that allows buyers to customize and visualize their perfect wheelchair before purchasing.
IntelliWheels launched the first live version of Tinker with Per4max, a customized wheelchair company specializing in sports. They are in talks with other wheelchair manufacturers, and could apply the technology to other segments of the industry, such as walkers, scooters and more.
“We’ve got plenty of opportunities right around the corner,” said Daigle. “Marissa has been incredible at guiding the business side of the company, making connections and coming up with marketing strategies.”
Among the many things she has learned in business, “You have to continue to reinvent yourself and have a grit factor, to keep things going,” said Siebel-Siero, who attributes much of her own problem-solving skills to her time at MSU.
“I really do feel that, at MSU, we are taught to use critical thinking to take on big challenges. That’s something I’ll always be grateful for.”
When she is not working for IntelliWheels, she is often teaching classes at UI in disability studies and entrepreneurship. Upon graduating with her doctorate in community health, she plans to turn her attention to growing the company more fully—and continue to teach.
“The way that Dr. Dummer influenced my life inspires me to be that person for others,” she said. “Every day is an opportunity to inspire somebody to think about disability in a different way.”
From pro football to the Paralympics
The first time MSU graduate Adam Siero got an internship with the National Football League, he sent an application to every single team. That tenacity—and connections with fellow Spartans—paid off when he went to work for the Baltimore Ravens.
He attended the team’s summer training camp as an athletic training intern in 2010, and in 2012 he returned for the whole season. It was the year they won the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans, a nail-biter game delayed by a long power outage.
With his own Super Bowl ring, Siero headed to Illinois to join his fiancée Marissa Siebel. They had met as fellow Kinesiology students at MSU volunteering with the Michigan Special Olympics.
Like Marissa, Adam didn’t start out planning to work with people with disabilities. But he loves where he’s landed: in a job empowering athletes to not only overcome physical challenges, but compete among the best in the world.
As head athletic trainer for wheelchair athletics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he cares for about 50 athletes, including several heading to the Paralympic Games this year in Rio de Janeiro.
Siero sees orthopedic injuries such as sprains and fractures, but also a wide range of medical issues associated with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy and other conditions. He must modify every strength and conditioning session for the unique needs of his athletes, and be ready for pressure sores or infections that can quickly lead to more serious issues.
“You have to be thinking a few steps ahead,” he said. From pro football to the Paralymics, he believes MSU prepared him to meet the challenges of today’s athletic training field.
“For me, it was a springboard,” he said. “It’s where I got my foundation that has carried me through my career.”
Successful Spartans: The Sieros
Name: Marissa Siebel-Siero
Education: B.S. ’03, Athletic Training & Exercise Science, Ithaca College; M.S. ’10, Kinesiology, Michigan State University
Past experience: High school athletic trainer in Bernardsville, N.J.; wheelchair athletics trainer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Current positions: Co-founder, co-owner and vice president of sales and marketing, IntelliWheels; Ph.D. candidate and instructor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Name: Adam Siero
Education: B.S. ’10, Athletic Training, Michigan State University
Past experience: Athletic training intern, University of Detroit-Mercy softball and the Baltimore Ravens professional football team, Super Bowl champion season (2012-13); volunteer firefighter
Current position: Athletic trainer, Wheelchair Athletics Program, Disability Resources and Educational Services, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
On the web
University of Illinois Disability Resources & Educational Services: disability.illinois.edu/athletics