- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia company MightyTykes is helping children and showing the country and world that each and every person is “different by design.”

Isabella Yosuico calls herself a “mighty mom” and is the founding president of MightyTykes, which has been three years in the making. She grew up in Howard County, Maryland, and Berkeley Springs has been her home for about 10 years now. She lives there with her husband Ray and sons Pierce, 7, and Isaac, 4.

Isabella knew that Isaac was going to have some kind of congenital issue, and she learned after he was born that he had Down syndrome. She recognized right away that her son would deal with hypotonia, which is low muscle tone and muscle weakness, and is common among children with Down syndrome.

Isaac was a few months old, and in Isabella’s “mommy brain,” it seemed obvious that she should make him some little weights. She filled leftover fleece with sand from her boys’ sandbox to create the weights.

Isaac’s physical therapist, Dr. Mary Jane Baniak, asked Isabella where she had gotten the weights and learned that the “mighty mom” had made them herself. Tiny weights like these weren’t really available anywhere else, and Baniak told Isabella that they could be helpful for many conditions in children, such as prematurity, infant stroke, autism, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy.

The MightyTykes Infant & Child Weights have been made in different sizes, including 1/8-, 1/4- and 1/2-pound, and 3/4- and 1-pound weights are currently in development.

“From a strength standpoint … I’ve noticed he’s progressed through all of the weights,” Isabella said of Isaac.

The weights were used for Isaac’s stereotypic movements, which are movements that are repetitive and purposeless. He would often raise his arms into the air as if he was waving, and the consciousness of the weights around his wrists helped correct those movements. Isabella also plans to use the weights on Isaac’s ankles to improve his walking.

A limited trial of the Infant & Child Weights was performed with families and in hospitals around the country, and MightyTykes has gotten a lot of testimonials from parents about how the weights have helped their children.

While the past three years have been tough for Isabella and discouraging at times, those emails or phone calls from parents providing positive feedback on her product made all that hard work worthwhile. She knows that she is helping to fill a much-needed gap in the market.

“My little basement project is really making a difference for people,” Isabella said. “It’s definitely pretty cool.”

Following extensive marketing efforts, MightyTykes officially unveiled its Infant & Child Weights at the New York Metro Abilities Expo at the beginning of May. This expo series is held across the country for consumers and professionals to learn about special needs devices, services and products, and MightyTykes got some great visibility during the event in New York.

The Infant & Child Weights are available at www.mightytykes.com.

“There’s been an interest,” Isabella said. “This is really a product that has a lot of potential use for a lot of conditions. We believe there is a lot of potential in Europe and in Asia.”

She stressed that the company’s message - that everyone is “different by design” - is just as important as the products. She explained that all children are valuable and deserve the tools to be successful in life.

“They’re not mistakes. They’re not defective,” Isabella said. “That means all of us are the way we are on purpose and for a purpose.”

As for the future, MightyTykes is coming up with new ideas that are practical and helpful, and people have been asking about different products. The company is considering going into some branded merchandise like exercise gear for toddlers, and weighted vests, clothing or devices for kids with sensory issues, Isabella said.

She said MightyTykes always wants to offer products that are of very high quality and are safe.

INNOVA Commercialization Group, an initiative of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation in Fairmont, and the West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust (WVJIT), which is based in Charleston and also has an office in Fairmont, are supporting MightyTykes in the form of a loan with the help of the West Virginia Capital Access Program.

“INNOVA and WVJIT each invested $50,000 from their respective investment funds, and each matched their investments with $50,000 from the West Virginia Capital Access Program, for a total loan of up to $200,000,” said Guy Peduto, director of INNOVA. “The investment is staged in two parts of $100,000 with sales-based milestones for drawing the second half.”

The investment is also supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, he said.

Michele O’Connor, investment manager for WVJIT, said the West Virginia Capital Access Program, which WVJIT administers, is funded through dollars from the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010. West Virginia received $13.1 million, provided by the federal State Small Business Credit Initiative, to allocate for small businesses.

WVJIT has disbursed almost all of those loan dollars, and has closed about 58 transactions and others are in transition after being approved. That $13.1 million has been leveraged to about $62 million of private investment, O’Connor said.

She said the State Small Business Credit Initiative provides dollars for companies that want to start or expand but are unable to go to a traditional lender. The program wants to partner with banks and other sources with private dollars to fill the gap at the federal level between the traditional lender and helping companies grow.

Right now, WVJIT has a $20 million portfolio with approximately 21 companies across West Virginia, and those loans are constantly revolving so it can reinvest in other businesses, O’Connor said.

MightyTykes is a startup that would have had a difficult time going to the bank to get funding, she said. This particular company found a niche market for a product that wasn’t available and will fill a need.

Since 2003, INNOVA has invested $2.6 million in 21 different companies in the state, Peduto said.

In making investments, INNOVA looks at products-based businesses that could develop sustainable employment and have intentions to expand in the state in the long term, he said. INNOVA is interested in working with businesses in West Virginia that have developed a product or prototype that is unique, solves a problem and fits into a market, Peduto said.

He said MightyTykes doesn’t really fit with the typical companies that INNOVA invests in. But after hearing Yosuico’s story, INNOVA wanted to do whatever it could to help her company.

Along with the funding come continued insight and assistance, he said. O’Connor explained that INNOVA and WVJIT are in regular contact with MightyTykes and are working with the company very closely to ensure its success.

INNOVA and WVJIT often work together on investment opportunities.

“As a rural state with economic activity and wealth creation historically rooted in mineral extraction and heavy industry, our state has a limited early-stage capital market to finance technological innovation and entrepreneurship,” Peduto said. “INNOVA often partners with the West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust and other investment groups to launch new companies across the state. Perhaps equally important are the collaborations with business support services such as the West Virginia Small Business Development Center, which helps entrepreneurs develop business plans and build companies around their products.”


Information from: Times West Virginian, https://www.timeswv.com

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