An Extension of Himself
Athlete Eric Robinson has helped build a $10 million prosthetic foot company, as well as an event that gives amputees a chance to participate in extreme sports again.
At age 4, while other kids were thinking about taking off their training wheels, Eric Robinson took up dirt biking. "Crashing only gave me more confidence," he says. Since then, he's added motocross, triathlons and snowboarding to his repertoire. So as president of College Park Industries, which manufactures prosthetic feet, it makes perfect sense that he led the company to found the O&P Extremity Games--referring to orthotics and prosthetics--open to people who have lost a limb or have some sort of limb difference.
Many of College Park's customers are older people who have diabetes and lose a foot to gangrene, but there are a number of young, athletic people who have lost limbs in accidents. It was that demographic that Robinson and his 55 employees found themselves talking to in recent years about the company's high-tech product, which costs around $6,000.
"We were always talking to people wearing the product, and they were all telling us how they would participate in sporting events," says Robinson. "They were skateboarding, skydiving, and they'd tell us that our product enabled them to go out and continue doing extreme events." So in 2006, in Orlando, Florida, far from their Fraser, Michigan, headquarters, the first Extremity Games, offering events like rock climbing, surfing and kayaking, took place. Another one followed in 2007.
But if you had met Robinson, now 39, a little more than 10 years ago, when he first started working at the business his father, David, began, you'd never have guessed the company would be involved in extreme sports. College Park Industries, when it formed in 1982, was called Tangent Tool and made tools for the auto industry. The best Robinson could have hoped for is that they might someday have a company softball team.
The business evolved into manufacturing prosthetic feet when Robinson, then 17 years old, and his family were in their living room watching a PBS documentary about low-cost prosthetic feet being made in India. "We could do that," said David, and later at a Chinese restaurant, he sketched out a design.
They incorporated as College Park Industries in 1988, and since David was more an inventor than an entrepreneur, Robinson left college during his sophomore year to help run the company. In 1997, after David died at the age of 53, Robinson became president of the $5 million company. Since then, the company's income has doubled.
Now Robinson is giving his customers and other athletes with prosthetics a place to compete in extreme sports. And every year, he's blown away by the competitions and competitors. The oldest participant last year was 60 years old, missing a foot from a hunting accident, and competed in the rock climbing event. Another rock climber lost an arm in Iraq. Yet another athlete lost a leg in a motorcycle accident a few years ago and now skateboards on a half pipe.
Hearing how many of these athletes were snowboarding, Robinson, an avid skier, was inspired to give it a try; now it's his preference whenever he needs to hurtle his body down the side of a mountain. "The feeling is liquid movement," raves Robinson. "I think I can understand the religious surfers a little better now."
Currently, Robinson is trying to attract more corporate sponsorships for the Extremity Games. His board of directors decided to cut back on the event's expenses, since costs can run up to $500,000 a year. In 2008, the games will be held near their offices in Michigan.
"I have to say, personally, I view extreme sports as an outlet," says Robinson. "It gives me an incredible amount of exhilaration, and then there's that little fear of death, just a little bit. You're on the edge, it invigorates you and puts passion back into my life. I love competing in extreme sports, and I love watching them. I think it's awesome."
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.