If you’ve ever worn Skechers Arch Fit, Adidas Codechaos or Timberland PRO, your feet have touched Von Homer’s footwear technology. Before launching the startup HX Innovations with his wife Nicole Homer in June 2019, he worked directly with footwear companies, primarily in testing.
That work would lead them to start the company, which uses neuroscience to evaluate body performance to improve the performance of footwear — but the journey really started when he was a football player at McDaniel College. Von suffered a hyperextension leg injury on the field that was so severe, doctors wanted to amputate. Instead, at his mother’s insistence, he entered a treatment plan of surgeries to save his leg.
After not being able to walk for months, he recovered, ready to play football and resume college on his academic scholarship. McDaniel wouldn’t allow him to play, which gave him the opportunity to learn, through physical therapy, that athletes didn’t really know if they were pushing the limits of their body’s capabilities.
He went on to earn a master’s in human movement and biomechanics, then a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
“This passion just started sparking, and the next thing you know his whole life revolved around gait, walking and human movement,” said Nicole Homer, a former paralegal for Fortune 500 companies who was earning her MBA when the couple began seriously considering cofounding the startup. “As he studied, he found that in biomechanics, a lot of professors and doctors just focused on joint movement, no one was really taking into consideration that neuro-muscular movement, that internal work that your body is doing to get your bones to move. He started creating these different methods and procedures and processes to predict neuro-muscular injury.”
The method that he developed, trademarked as The Homer Technique, can pinpoint the exact muscles that are susceptible to injury.
Von was teaching at the podiatry school down at Barry University in Miami when colleagues began to tell him that he could be onto something big. He started applying his method and tests on members of the Miami Heat to see if they actually were on to something.
When they were sure they were, they started working with people they’d connected with over the years, including. developers, podiatrists, basketball players, football players and footwear companies.
“We had all these different fields,” said Nicole. “The one we got the most traction with was the footwear industry.”
Von’s work in internal testing for footwear brands had helped him see the gaps that needed to be filled.
“Manufacturers determine how comfortable the shoe is by how well it sells and how many times it’s returned,” he said. HX Innovations testing goes deeper, using AI, machine learning and computer vision technologies to predict footwear performance with a camera-based system that can be used in tandem with in-house testing to help create high-performance shoes for a range of people. According to the plan, the same system will be in footwear retailers to assess buyers as well.
The company launched with the help of a National Science Foundation grant, self-investment and $50,000 in Delaware Technology Innovation Program bridge funding, and was recently awarded $60,000 in grants from Delaware Division of Small Business and Labware at the recent Startup 302 pitch competition. It’s now in the innovation phase, headquartered in the Homers’ home in Middletown, as well as a subleased space from Delaware State University, where the team is able to use DSU labs in exchange for performance testing for the school’s athletes.
It’s an arrangement that was complicated by COVID-19.
“Because of COVID, we couldn’t advance as quickly as we would have,” Nicole said. “We had so many different opportunities and pending contracts with universities and other athletic teams and when COVID hit it was just like — no sports. It really did put a damper on things, so we had to work around it.”
With restrictions lifting and sports back on, HX is ready to move forward.
“We’re going to use the Startup 302 money to automate our data collection and to advance our efficiencies in our social media so that we can be more effective in this new era of business,” said Nicole. “We’re going to be tapping into more footwear companies to provide this service to them. In the next two years, we want to have the beta model of the neuromuscular prediction camera. Our projection is to have them in footwear stores, and also tapping into industries like physical therapy, post op procedures and general wellness.”
The HX team, which also includes research technician Ny’ree Williamson and research assistant Aaron Griffith, also plans to continue to grow the business here in Delaware, where Von grew up and Nicole transplanted to as a teen and eventually finished her undergraduate work.
“There’s no other neuroergonomic biomechanics lab in Delaware — or the East Coast at all,” said Nicole. “I think Delaware is just small enough for us to make a bigger impact because of the connections that we already have here.”
It’s also, she says, a good opportunity to broaden how people see Delaware.
“It’s seen mostly as a banking state or a chemical state,” she said. “A lot of people in technology go somewhere else, to Texas or California or New York. I think it’s a good opportunity to see how far we can advance the mindset of people to say, ‘Look, I don’t have to move far away, I can actually apply this great degree here.’ I feel like what we have is scalable enough that we can broaden out the economic exposure here in Delaware — and not just for those in technology, but for those who don’t really know what they want to be when they grow up. A minority-run organization that is not a restaurant or salon expands the possibilities and influences decision-making processes.”