Carl Caspers, CPO: Innovation Sparked by Personal Experience

By Garrison Wells

Carl Caspers, CPO, widely recognized as the father of vacuum suspension, was a pioneer in using scientific inquiry and research to develop groundbreaking products in the O&P industry early in his career, long before science was a part of the profession's vernacular.

Carl Caspers

Caspers poses with the welcome figure at his Florida condo in 2007. Photographs courtesy of Carl Caspers.

Carl Caspers

Caspers speaks at his induction into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame.

The O&P profession, Caspers says, is beginning to understand the importance of science, research, and data collection to patients' treatment-and to the growth of the profession as well. Putting the study of science and scientific method into play "started for me early in my career," he says. "I do believe that [the profession is] heading in that direction."

At age 72, Caspers has led a vibrant life and pursued a career that has reaped him numerous awards and 18 patents for liners, suspension sleeves, and post-operative and volume-management products, as well as technology for the prosthetic industry. The former CEO and cofounder of TEC Interface Systems, Waite Park, Minnesota, which he sold in 2003 to Ottobock, Minneapolis, Minnesota, was recognized the year before the sale by Fast Company magazine as one of its Fast 50 Innovators. And in 2012, Caspers was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame.

Accident Leads to Career Choice

An accident led Caspers to enter O&P-one that he remembers with great clarity.

In 1959, at the age of 18, he was practicing fast-draw for a shooting club that he was in when his gun went off in his holster. "It didn't clear the holster and dumped the round down the holster into my leg," he recalls. "It traveled around, went down into my ankle, and took out the major nerves and vessels in my lower leg."

Because he was a mile from civilization, he applied a tourniquet and walked back to his car. He tried to drive home, but the injury forced him to stop at a farmhouse, where he was finally picked up by an ambulance.

He spent eight weeks in the hospital, eventually undergoing a transtibial amputation. "It was the tourniquet," he says. "It was probably on too long and the gun certainly did [damage]." It was devastating emotionally for a young man who had just placed third in the state wrestling tournament and planned to attend college.

"For me, it was a life-changing event," Caspers says. "But it put me into a profession where I've been able to bring a lot of good into the industry and to other people who are amputees. I would say it's all a plus."

Caspers says he began a relentless search for a prosthesis that would allow him to do all of the things he wanted to do. He found little, he says, and what he did find was disappointing. For instance, the lack of linkage was disappointing, he says, especially for an active person. That led him to develop the liners and his latest invention, a multisurface, dynamically activated, variable response socket.

"I've been mainly driven because the solutions and the answers were not in the normal area I was traveling," he says. "To find the answers, I had to look elsewhere."

The prosthesis that he was fitted with at the time "was absolutely a miserable thing to have to wear. It was really bad," Caspers says. "I was not ready to quit living and was anxious to get on with my life."

He says he suffered blisters, ulcers, and cysts, and had to go through a couple of surgeries due to prosthetic wear.

Throughout this time, however, Caspers' prosthetist developed a rapport with him and asked if he would work for him. "He said I would be really good at this and asked me if I would work there," Caspers says. "It was what I needed to hear."

Caspers decided to pursue an education in O&P and was accepted into the program at the Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center, Chicago, Illinois, when another student dropped out. It was a quick turnaround. The year after his accident, he was a fledgling prosthetist, learning his way around.

Searching for "Out of the Box" Solutions

Caspers says he has never been the type to work within the confines of an industry's tradition. "I look at things differently," he says. From the beginning he sought solutions in science-something he says was not the standard approach at the time. "I contacted prosthetists all over the country and found out quickly that none of them knew more than I did about what was going on in terms of the scientific side of things," he says. "I constantly went back to school to take courses and learn the science and new technologies."

Of his patents, he says that three stand out because of their contribution to the O&P profession. "I've had probably three or four things I've done that are really significant, as far as the industry is concerned," Caspers says. "I was the first one to bring soft socket liner technology. That was some time ago, but there wasn't anybody doing that at the time. We were selling liners for five years before anybody else entered the market."

The second innovation he cites as important for the industry was the discovery of the use of atmospheric pressure, or vacuum, as a means to control the socket environment. The discovery improved the linkage between the residual limb and socket and allowed for the volume changes that occur when a person wears a prosthesis.

His third is his newest product, the dynamically activated variable response socket. He's been working on it for the last dozen or so years with Glenn Street, PhD, professor of biomechanics at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota, who codirects its Human Performance Laboratory.

"I developed a semiflexible inner socket, injected, molded, urethaned with multisurfacing," Casper says. "It's really very simple. The multisurface increases the surface area. It can increase the surface area of the socket by 100 percent, a huge advantage when you are trying to spread forces around."

University studies indicate the socket can increase the linkage between the residual limb and the socket by 400 percent, he adds. "These are big numbers. It's not something that you see in our industry very much."

The socket has been introduced to the market on a limited scale; there are more than 200 patients using it, including one from Russia.

Caspers leads an active and full life. That comes in part from his adventurous spirit. It also comes from plying his trade. He is his own guinea pig, a sort of Beta male. When he develops a new product, it is often related to or inspired by difficulties he finds with prosthetic devices in his own life.

"I do a lot of things," Caspers says. "I'm a sporting clay shooter, a rifle and pistol shooter. I am also a motorcycle rider, and I've been a power lifter all my life."

He works out four or five times a week, plays in a racquetball league, and used to race his Dodge Viper. He and his wife, Barbara, have traveled all over the United States and Canada.

Caspers' lifestyle is an example of the increase in the more active patients prosthetists are seeing who don't want to sacrifice their ability to be active-a trend that is not limited just to younger people with amputations or to athletes and soldiers, but that is also finding its way into the geriatric population, he says.

Changing Course

These days, Caspers has traded the challenges of owning a company with 49 employees and wearing the multiple hats of designer, educator, and manager, for the simplicity of a streamlined operation of just him and his wife. Together they are a 24/7 operation. He hires out the manufacturing of his latest product, the variable response socket, and produces about four a day. "It allows me to concentrate more on the education side and the final production side," Caspers says. "It keeps it simple. My interest really at this time is to get this technology into the current market and help amputees live a better life."

Carl and family

Caspers with wife, Barbara, center, at their 50th anniversary celebration with daughter, Cori, and son, Tony.

Caspers would like to find a larger company that will buy the design "and go beyond where I am now." So far he has had discussions with one major international firm that has expressed an interest, he says.

Caspers isn't just a man with an innovation; he is also a man with a message and some strong opinions. People, he says, tend to return to what they know. So the profession and industry gets new products, techniques, and methods, stumbles a bit, and rushes back to the safety of tradition, he says. Playing it safe doesn't always pay off.

He would also like to see more connection between surgeons who perform amputations and prosthetists who fit the patients. He understands the restrictions that surgeons face, but at the same time says he feels they could perform more reconstructive surgery that would improve the connection between the residual limb and socket.

"As an industry, we haven't gone to the doctors and said this isn't working," he says. "We just take whatever comes off the table."

Caspers says he would also like to see the profession continue on its path, nationally and internationally, into a more scientific realm. He sees the movement of O&P associations in the United States and internationally to develop guidelines for scientific research as a positive step.

"I think that's kind of where we departed," he says. "I've found that trying all the [products] that were out there didn't change things for me, but when I started applying physics and physiology and getting involved with the university and engineers, that there are things we can do." For all of his success, he still has a closet full of products that didn't make it to market. But that doesn't mean those products have been forever shelved.

"Sure, I've got a lot of things that didn't work, but that's part of learning," he says. "And they aren't bad answers. They are just not the right answers. But you learn a lot when you make errors and find out that wasn't the right solution."

"The industry," Caspers adds, "needs to get into the science, too. That's where the solutions can be found."

Garrison Wells is an award-winning freelance writer and author based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has written for newspapers and magazines nationwide and authored five books on martial arts. He can be reached at