A MATTER OF THE KNEE

HOW JIM CASTILLO’S MISFORTUNE CHANGED MX FOREVER

We’ve all got friends like Jim Castillo. You know; creative, talented, ambitious and driven. The thing that separates Castillo from the rest, however, is that he turned a personal tragedy into an experience that changed his life-and the lives of many others-for the better. This is the story behind the Innovation Sports CTi knee brace; a product that has prevented injuries, extended careers, and made motocross a safer sport for those who use them.

DRIVEN

Growing up in Southern California, Castillo was an avid motocross racer and an even more dedicated skier during the winters. Though he never made it to the professional ranks in either sport, Jim jumped at every chance he got to partake in his two favorite activities, funding his weekend habits by running his own successful contracting business in Mission Viejo. Even then, his entrepreneurial spirit was strong. “I hadn’t worked for someone else since I was 19, when I framed houses,” he said. “One day, I decided that I wanted to work for myself and I went out and started my own company.” At 28 years old, life was good for Jim; he was married, had a prosperous business, and had plenty of time to ride and ski to his heart’s content.

All of that changed one night in August of 1980. Along with a group of three friends, Castillo crossed a busy street outside of the designated crosswalk area. Wearing dark clothing and slowed down by a busted heel he had suffered in a motocross crash a few months earlier, Jim was struck by a car traveling at an estimated speed of 45 miles per hour. “Basically, the driver saw my three friends and thought, ‘I’ll show those jaywalkers!'” said Castillo. “So he swerved from the left lane over towards us on the right, just as we neared the curb. He had meant to scare us, but he didn’t see me in my dark clothing and hit me head on.”

Castillo went through the car’s windshield and was then thrown 60 feet through the air. His jeans were covered in green paint; the impact was so severe that the car’s finish was transferred to his clothing. Jim’s shoulder was destroyed, all the ribs in the right side were smashed, and a lumbar vertebra was broken. Most devastatingly, both of his knees were completely blown out, the left dislocated in a manner so severe the doctors were worried that he could lose the lower leg. Castillo was in and out of a coma for three weeks.

“When I woke up, the doctors told me that I wasn’t looking good,” said Castillo. “I didn’t even stand up until the following January, and the doctors told me that my shoulder would never be the same again, and that my left knee was trashed. He said that I would never, ever be able to do anything active again with my knee in the condition it was in.”

Jim’s accident didn’t merely wreak havoc on his body; it took a toll on the rest of his life, as well. “I lost everything in that accident,” he said. “I lost my business, my home, my cars, and my family came apart. I was left with nothing, and I moved back into my parents’ home to heal up and get back on my feet.”

ROCK BOTTOM

Though he was faced with nothing but bad news since that fateful night in August, Jim maintained a healthy attitude and remained positive. Though the doctors told him that he would be physically limited for the rest of his life, Castillo never bought into it and was determined to return to the mountain and the track.

“When you lose everything you have, it’s actually sort of a neat position to be in,” said Castillo. “It is a position of strength. Think about it; the thing that prevents you from taking chances in life is the fear of losing what you have. When you have already lost everything you have, you have nothing to lose and therefore are more likely to just go for it.”

It was then that Jim-as entrepreneurial as ever-decided to invent something. “I didn’t know what I was going to invent, but the plan was to invent something that had never been made before. had five ideas-and to be honest I can’t really even remember what they were now-but the knee brace was not one of them.”

In the winter of ’81, little more than a year after his accident, Jim decided that he wanted to join his friends on a ski trip to Mammoth Mountain. In spite of what the doctors had said, he was determined to get back on skis. “My left knee was really loose and lacked stability,” he said. “The doctors explained to me in which directions my knee was unstable, so I decided to rig up some sort of cage for my leg that would allow me to make the ski trip. I devised the first brace in my mind on the drive home.”

At the time, the knee braces available were nothing but flimsy neoprene compression braces, or the cumbersome post-surgery hinged units that went from upper thigh to ankle. There was an existing sports brace that was endorsed by quarterback Joe Namath, but Jim’s doctor steered him away from the unit, proclaiming it ineffective for his type of injury. After his doctor appointment, Jim visited his brother’s shop to get ahold of some steel strips that he proceeded to hammer into shape and weld together into a brace that would limit the amount of bad rotation his damaged knee could suffer. All in all, Castillo’s first brace took two days to make, start to finish, and Jim spray painted it blue on the night before he and his buddies were to leave for Mammoth.

“It’s funny, but I had no doubt in my mind that the brace would work,” he said. “The brace was cobby as hell, and it attached to my ski boot with a leather strap. It worked, though, and I continued to refine it in the weeks that followed that initial outing.”

After the successful maiden voyage of the brace, Jim continued to develop it and improve upon its design, but he continued to work with his “five inventions” as well, even going so far as to contact a patent attorney. “At the time, I didn’t even consider the brace to be one of my inventions,” he said. “I continued to work on it out of a personal necessity, not as one of my inventions.”

INTEREST SPARKS

At the end of that ski season, on the last ski trip of the year, fate struck in the parking lot at the Mammoth Mountain ski lifts. “A guy approached me in the parking lot and said that he had heard me explaining how my brace worked to some friends,” said Castillo. “He thought that it was a great idea and said that I should show the brace to Dr. J.R. Steadman, who was the orthopedic surgeon for the U.S. Ski Team. At the time, I casually agreed and took the doctor’s information down, but it wasn’t until a few days later that I really thought about it.”

Realizing that the knee brace was a viable product, Jim approached his brother Ed and asked him to invest $20,000 into the project, granting him 1/3 ownership in the new company in return. Ed agreed, and the brothers were in business. Castillo knew that he needed to further develop the brace before presenting it to Dr. Steadman, and set out to produce using a lighter yet strong material. The downfall of the original steel brace was its weight, and Jim set out to find a suitable material.

“I picked up the phone book and just started calling people,” said Jim. “When I want to find something out, I can usually get some answers by being resourceful. I just called up NASA; I called the guys at Moffett Field up in Northern California. I figured that if anyone was going to know materials, it would be them.”

At NASA, Jim explained to the scientists what he had in mind and they suggested he use carbon fiber, referring him to Ceba Geigey, a Swiss pharmaceutical company that specialized in working with carbon resins. “I remember looking at the stuff and thinking, ‘This is just black fiberglass!'” said Castillo. “I had worked with fiberglass and resins before when laminating surfboards and other projects, so I figured that I already knew how to work with the stuff.”

Castillo drove out of the Ceba Geigey parking lot with a truckload of carbon fiber supplies and spent the next few months learning how to work with the material through trial and error. By late ’82, he had a working carbon fiber version of his original steel brace, and made that all-important phone call to Dr. Steadman.

“Dr. Steadman is the coolest guy in the world,” said Castillo. “While you would expect a renowned surgeon like him to be arrogant, we found him to be a fantastic guy. He called us back between surgeries, and after listening to our ideas, he agreed to meet with us and help us out. That night was a euphoric evening, to say the least! We had the feeling that we were onto something big.”

The following day, Ed and Jim met with Dr. Steadman and he proved to be quite impressed with their invention. Knowing well that they still needed to further develop the product, the doctor blew them away by writing them a personal check for $10,000 “to help them get through the development stage.”

IT’S ALL IN THE NAME

Jim found inspiration for the name of the new company from his guitar. “Names are hard to come up with,” he said. “I had an Ovation guitar, and from that we came up with Innovation Sports. Innovation is an odd name, because it is not an adjective, but we liked it and it stuck. Naming the brace itself was much simpler. The brace was made of carbon, and the hinges were made of titanium. On the periodic table of the elements, carbon is C and titanium is Ti, so it became the CTi brace.”

The first finished CTi brace was completed in early ’83, and Jim attended a World Cup Ski event in Aspen, Colorado, with Dr. Steadman. In his bag he brought along braces for all 14 team members to check out. “The doctor told them not to use them, but to try them on and see what they thought,” said Castillo. “Now, for skiers knee injuries are a way of life and all of them liked the brace enough to use it in favor of the ones they already had.”

Though the brace was untested, it was suddenly thrust into the limelight by the ski team members who used it that day. “We were literally set on top of the mountain by Dr. Steadman,” said Castillo. “Normally, you grind your way to the top, but the way in which we were put into the public eye on the legs of the best athletes gave us instant credibility.”

FOR SALE

Ironically, the first CTi brace sold by Innovation Sports was not to a skier, but to a motocrosser. Though Jim had been riding his motocross bike with one for some time, the CTi brace was virtually unknown in moto circles. Dr. Steadman, however, referred an injured motocrosser to Castillo. Tim Tremaine, a racer from Northern California, was officially the company’s first paying customer.

The first “big name” motocrosser, meanwhile, to wear the CTi brace was Kent Howerton. A factory Kawasaki rider at the time, the “Rhinestone Cowboy” suffered a knee injury in ’83 and approached Innovation Sports about wearing a CTi while he competed.

“I hurt my knee and it had no stability, but I couldn’t afford to take time to get it operated on,” said Howerton. “Roy Turner (Kawasaki Team Manager at the time) and I were trying to figure out how to make a brace for me, but then someone told us about Jim and Ed and their CTi brace. They were both incredibly nice guys, and I went to get fitted up for my brace at their new building that they had just started moving in to. I sat on the ground and Jim traced my leg on a piece of paper. We made several adjustments, but eventually I ended up with a brace that worked really great. I would say that the biggest mistake I made was not offering to buy half of their company right on the spot!”

With Howerton wearing the brace, other top racers began to catch on as well. Riders like Danny “McGoo” Chandler, Jeff Ward, Johnny O’Mara, and Doug Dubach are all among the first racers to endorse the CTi brace. Though Innovation Sports first gained momentum within the ski industry, being associated with motocross racers is where the company gained its notoriety. “You gravitate towardsupplies and spent the next few months learning how to work with the material through trial and error. By late ’82, he had a working carbon fiber version of his original steel brace, and made that all-important phone call to Dr. Steadman.

“Dr. Steadman is the coolest guy in the world,” said Castillo. “While you would expect a renowned surgeon like him to be arrogant, we found him to be a fantastic guy. He called us back between surgeries, and after listening to our ideas, he agreed to meet with us and help us out. That night was a euphoric evening, to say the least! We had the feeling that we were onto something big.”

The following day, Ed and Jim met with Dr. Steadman and he proved to be quite impressed with their invention. Knowing well that they still needed to further develop the product, the doctor blew them away by writing them a personal check for $10,000 “to help them get through the development stage.”

IT’S ALL IN THE NAME

Jim found inspiration for the name of the new company from his guitar. “Names are hard to come up with,” he said. “I had an Ovation guitar, and from that we came up with Innovation Sports. Innovation is an odd name, because it is not an adjective, but we liked it and it stuck. Naming the brace itself was much simpler. The brace was made of carbon, and the hinges were made of titanium. On the periodic table of the elements, carbon is C and titanium is Ti, so it became the CTi brace.”

The first finished CTi brace was completed in early ’83, and Jim attended a World Cup Ski event in Aspen, Colorado, with Dr. Steadman. In his bag he brought along braces for all 14 team members to check out. “The doctor told them not to use them, but to try them on and see what they thought,” said Castillo. “Now, for skiers knee injuries are a way of life and all of them liked the brace enough to use it in favor of the ones they already had.”

Though the brace was untested, it was suddenly thrust into the limelight by the ski team members who used it that day. “We were literally set on top of the mountain by Dr. Steadman,” said Castillo. “Normally, you grind your way to the top, but the way in which we were put into the public eye on the legs of the best athletes gave us instant credibility.”

FOR SALE

Ironically, the first CTi brace sold by Innovation Sports was not to a skier, but to a motocrosser. Though Jim had been riding his motocross bike with one for some time, the CTi brace was virtually unknown in moto circles. Dr. Steadman, however, referred an injured motocrosser to Castillo. Tim Tremaine, a racer from Northern California, was officially the company’s first paying customer.

The first “big name” motocrosser, meanwhile, to wear the CTi brace was Kent Howerton. A factory Kawasaki rider at the time, the “Rhinestone Cowboy” suffered a knee injury in ’83 and approached Innovation Sports about wearing a CTi while he competed.

“I hurt my knee and it had no stability, but I couldn’t afford to take time to get it operated on,” said Howerton. “Roy Turner (Kawasaki Team Manager at the time) and I were trying to figure out how to make a brace for me, but then someone told us about Jim and Ed and their CTi brace. They were both incredibly nice guys, and I went to get fitted up for my brace at their new building that they had just started moving in to. I sat on the ground and Jim traced my leg on a piece of paper. We made several adjustments, but eventually I ended up with a brace that worked really great. I would say that the biggest mistake I made was not offering to buy half of their company right on the spot!”

With Howerton wearing the brace, other top racers began to catch on as well. Riders like Danny “McGoo” Chandler, Jeff Ward, Johnny O’Mara, and Doug Dubach are all among the first racers to endorse the CTi brace. Though Innovation Sports first gained momentum within the ski industry, being associated with motocross racers is where the company gained its notoriety. “You gravitate towards the things that you love,” said Castillo. “And being associated with motocross gave us an edge, because it made us a racing company.”

THE FUTURE

In ’93, Innovation Sports released the CTi2, a revised version of the original that featured a new hinge system and a sleeker, more refined frame design with a much-improved strap system. The new design was a big hit among motocrossers as the new hinge design was much easier on motocross pants and bike graphics, and the sales of the custom braces reached an all-time high in ’94.

“There have been several seasons when you could look at the list of the top 100 pro motocross racers, and pick out 95 of them who wear the CTi2 brace,” said Castillo.

In the eyes of a rider who has suffered a knee injury, a set of knee braces is as important as a helmet when it comes to protective equipment. Though many riders first elect to wear knee braces after sustaining an injury, more and more are beginning to realize that obtaining a set before the injury ever occurs is key. With the ever-increasing difficulties of dealing with insurance companies, however, Castillo saw the writing on the wall and set out to develop a line of off-the-shelf knee braces that did not require a doctor’s prescription to obtain.

“Insurance companies, in general, are not interested in covering the expense of a knee brace,” said Castillo. “Though it is possible to have the expense of a knee brace covered, the carriers are-by and large-not interested in helping you return to the activity that caused your injury in the first place. What’s ironic about that is that the cost of a brace is so minimal in comparison to the cost of another reconstructive surgery; they should cover the braces as a preventative measure in the first place!”

In addition to the CTi2 prescription brace, Innovation Sports now produces seven off-the-shelf braces that utilize the same basic concepts as the original, as well as a full line of soft support braces for many other parts of the body. Thanks to a scaled-down version called the C180 Rocket, riders can protect their knees starting at a very young age. Furthermore, the Aspire brace is designed with women in mind, and is built to accommodate a female’s unique body proportions.

In the near future, we could see a custom wrist brace from Innovation Sports that will utilize all of the same technology that has made the CTi2 brace such a success. “We’ve had a wrist brace in the works for years now,” said Castillo. “The needs of a motocross racer, when it comes to a wrist brace, are very different from any other sport. You need to be able to twist a throttle and operate levers at all angles of flexion, so I think that this brace will do for wrist braces what the CTi brace did for the knees.”

Today, Innovation Sports is a multi-million-dollar company that utilizes over 200 employees and is housed in a 55,000-square foot building in Foothill Ranch, California. All of the braces and their parts are manufactured right there inside the building as Castillo’s vision remains to produce the very best products possible, and each and every brace is built with the same amount of passion as his very first steel ski brace. “Necessity is an amazing driving force,” said Castillo. “To look back and think that all of this started with that cobby old steel cage that I built to go skiing, and to look at how far the company has come, I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky.”

Ask anyone who knows Jim Castillo, though, and they will tell you that luck had nothing to do with it.

ASTERISK: OFF-THE-SHELF SAVIOR

Since its inception, the Innovation Sports CTi knee brace has been labeled a medical product and a prescription from a doctor is required to even be fitted for one. Though some insurance companies will cover the expense of the brace following an injury or reconstructive surgery, obtaining authorization for a set for preventative measures is becoming increasingly difficu