Reinventing the running shoe
Researchers have developed a heel-less running shoe that improves posture, walking and running perfor-mances. The patented technology, a shock-absorbing sole plate which replaces the heel, was made possible thanks to EU funding which targets SMEs.
What makes the running shoe highly innovative is that its outer sole does not have a heel. A sole plate, which is incorporated under the middle part of the foot, replaces the padded heel of traditional running shoes. Ciro Maddaloni, a project officer at the Research Executive Agency who provided monitoring and tutoring activities for the HEELLESS initiative from 2008 to 2010, explains that this reduces impact on the heel, which means that the force goes through the middle of the foot, putting less stress on the knee and ankle. This is in stark contrast to conventional running shoes which lessen the impact on the heel of the foot by cushioning it.
SME research funding scheme off and running
The HEELLESS project was led by Mr Adri Hartveld, the founder and managing director of UK-based Healus Technology and a physiotherapist. He developed the innovative design, and brought together five research partners from Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. The research consortium received EUR 1.02 million in grant funding under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) 'Research for the benefit of SMEs' theme, which aims to strengthen the innovation capacity of European SMEs and their contribution to the development of new technology-based products and markets. The funding enabled the consortium to carry out activities spread over two years on polymer material development, shoe prototype development, kinematic and biomechanical analyses, evaluations and test trials, as well as the dissemination, technology transfer and exploitation of results.
According to Mr Maddaloni, the EU funding instrument helped the consortium to overcome the biggest research hurdles: identifying the right polymer and defining the shape of the sole. 'Mr Hartveld didn't have the financial means to contract a producer to develop a new polymer for the shoe or to commission an independent organisation to perform biomechanical tests.'
The project culminated in mid-2010 following the successful completion of the patented sole technology with its unique material characteristics.
Lace up and reap the rewards
Unlike its more traditional counterpart, this lightweight shoe alleviates the impact force when the foot strikes the ground during running or brisk walking. By greatly enhancing shock absorption, it reduces the repetitive stresses and strains on joints that often lead to injuries associated with this type of activity. Mr Maddaloni says that the sole's unique localised rigidity permits and directs the full natural movement of walking and running. He further explains that the shoe promotes correct alignment of the human body: 'It gives the possibility to better balance your weight and posture, to stand, to walk and to run better and faster – to actually use the body in a more correct manner than before.'
In addition to the gains for serious runners and competitive athletes, Mr Maddaloni sees the benefits of the shoe for the entire fitness market. 'Athletes can better take advantage of these shoes, but it is true that they can be used by everyone, for example by casual walkers and joggers, to improve walking or running efficiency. These are leisure shoes, so regardless of whether you walk or run a lot, they should help.'
The shoe also provides a number of auxiliary benefits, such as the feel-good factor created when general performance is enhanced, the increased confidence when running or jogging well and the higher comfort level due to less overall body strain.
Hit the ground running with marketing
Mr Maddaloni says that the shoe has now entered into the industrialisation phase where the objective is market exploitation of the patent: 'The consortium is trying to find investors, looking for people that are interested in production.'
He stresses that the challenges are two-fold: to identify a shoes producer that wants to use the patent and to persuade sports shoe companies to commit to this highly innovative running shoe concept.