Van Phillips never planned to be an inventor, but during his third year in a broadcasting program at Arizona State University, a waterskiing accident changed his life: a motorboat ran into him, its propeller cutting off his left leg below the knee.
Surgery after the accident was antiquated, leaving him with pain relieved only by a second surgery years later, and his first prosthesis was a clumsy wood and foam rubber leg. At the hospital, someone assured him he’d one day be able to run again. Van – who’d always been active and athletic – set out to make that happen.
After graduating from Northwestern University, which offered one of the country’s best prosthetic design programs, he went to work at the Center for Biomedical Design at the University of Utah, where he focused on sockets, linings and attachments. But on his own time he began to develop concepts for a leg that would enable him to run again. Looking to nature for inspiration, he settled on a design based on the hind leg of a cheetah, then searched for materials that offered energy return, durability, strength, and lightness. When carbon graphite proved superior, an acquaintance introduced him to Dale Abildskov, an aerospace materials specialist. Within a week they’d engineered a full-length, flexible carbon graphite prosthesis, then spent two years building, testing and breaking more than 200 variants before founding Flex-Foot, Inc. and developing specialized legs for skiing, swimming, mountain climbing and other activities.
Van’s work has had a profound effect on not only the prosthetics industry but on the lives of amputees around the world. They can run again… play again, and are no longer seen as ‘disabled.’ or unable to participate. More than 90% of competitors in the Paralympics wear Flex-Foot or Flex-Foot inspired prostheses.
Since selling his interest in Flex-Foot, Van has been working through Second Wind – a nonprofit foundation he founded to help amputees who do not have the means to help themselves – to design an artificial leg for land-mine victims: a prosthesis that will function nearly as well as a Flex-Foot, cost no more than $20, and be nearly indestructible .
Currently living in Mendocino, California, Van is pursuing his interest in acting and renovating an historic building he owns into a coffee house, community gathering place and improvisational theater. He enjoys hiking and riding horses along the scenic coastline time with his ten-year-old daughter, Olivia, and still finds that new ideas come to him when he is close to nature.