Courtney Williamson’s dream has always been academia. After obtaining a BA from Spelman College in Atlanta and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, her straight path to personal achievement seemed clearly paved on its way to research and teaching. But things changed. And today instead she is an accomplished inventor and entrepreneur who is improving the lives of thousands and eventually millions of Parkinson’s Disease patients by simply improving their posture.
Courtney has a fascinating story, surrounded by care, pivoting and a strong mission “why.” Her mother had Parkinson’s disease and Courtney spent years caring for her realizing there had to be a device to help PD patients with their posture, and everything else that involves. “I founded AbiliLife when I was a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon. During that time, I realized the need for a product to help my mother, a 25-year Parkinson’s disease patient, with her posture. Before my mother passed away, I invented the Calibrace+ and founded AbiliLife, which has developed into a full-service medical device company.“
The Calibrace+ is a patented orthotic back brace with a pulley-tension system that mechanically lifts a patient’s shoulders and back for optimal torso alignment, largely improving their posture. This brings huge benefits to patients from reducing pain, to allowing them to swallow better, to enhancing their dignity and quality of life. Some of the customer testimonials are downright comforting as they are heart breaking. And this was the true inspiration for Courtney. She walked away on her lifelong dream of academia. She was not even an engineer, by her own admission, she jokes about having trouble assembling an Ikea bed. She was not a born entrepreneur. But she had learned a lot about care taking. And it was her desire to help her mother and others like her that took her off course and in an entirely new direction.
Courtney is originally from Baltimore and landed in Pittsburgh to get her PhD at Carnegie Mellon, which offered her multiple benefits. “The competitive advantage that I used to leverage AbiliLife’s growth is my connection with Carnegie Mellon University. I benefited greatly from CMU’s interdisciplinary mindset and was able to glean insights from students and professors across the campus. In addition, Pittsburgh’s advanced medical practices and services provide an excellent community to help me develop AbiliLife’s medical devices.”
AbiliLife is a leading med-tech firm in town. Its Calibrace+ is 100% reimbursed by Medicare and commercial insurance, it is sold nation-wide, and has been prescribed by physicians in over 50 hospitals such as Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, and Mount Sinai Beth Israel. Its second product is the GaitTracker, currently in R&D, a telehealth application and wearable device system for continuous, in-home monitoring and tracking of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) motor symptoms.
Courtney is one of very few successful founders and CEOs that fit the diversity profile the city and its technology community want to see grow, and she is fully aware. “Pittsburgh has a lot of work to do in terms of being inclusive. I’ve lived here for 10 years and have seen several neighborhoods push diverse communities out of their homes in favor of condominiums, upscale apartments, and business buildings. My request is that Pittsburgh stop accepting awards for being the ‘most livable’ city when the racial disparities are so profound and are the cause of deaths, reduced quality of life, and injustice.”
She’s certainly not alone in her thinking, but probably more frustrated than most that with all of its benefits and advantages, Pittsburgh remains behind. We asked her if she has a favorite Pittsburgh anecdote and she said “No, but I very much want to be invited to a Pittsburgh wedding with a bona fide cookie table!” But all jokes aside, she continues focused on the need for Pittsburgh to get its diversity act straight, “I love the various neighborhoods, I enjoy taking a long walk in Schenley Park in the morning and then grab an amazing Italian lunch in Bloomfield. But we need to look at equity and how so many of our communities are disenfranchised.”