Van Phillips was born in 1954 in Illinois. Growing up in a rural area with few friends living nearby, he spent much of his time in the woods. He loved to create things and his parents were supportive of his desire to explore and create.
He went to Arizona State to major in broadcasting. It was a traumatic event that changed his life’s journey. When he was water skiing, a boat ran into him and its propeller cut off his left leg just below the knee.
After surgery, he was given an artificial leg made of wood and foam. The prosthesis was very unsatisfactory, but he was assured he would be able to run again someday. The problem was that the prosthesis had no resilience. He wanted something that would rebound when he walked, not just thud.
He decided to develop his own prosthesis and enrolled in a prosthetic design program at Northwestern. After graduation, he took a job in biomedical design in Utah. He began to experiment with materials and designs for his leg. This was done on his own time. Calling on his childhood, he looked to nature for inspiration. He began to wonder what he could learn from nature that had the qualities of elasticity and springiness that he desired from his prosthesis. It was the hind leg of the cheetah that gave him the starting point for a new prosthetic design.
The challenge was to find the material that was durable, strong, light, and springy. After trying many materials, he settled on carbon graphite. The next challenge was the design. As he developed and produced different designs, he would try them out by playing tennis. Over and over again, the prosthetic leg would break while he played. It was through a specialist in fiber science that he made the breakthrough needed. It took nearly 2 years and nearly 300 models before he eventually found a design that would work.
Van and a team created the Flex-Foot Company. The prosthetic was quickly accepted, and other designs were developed for active living. Today 90% of competitive athletes with disabilities use one of the products developed by Van and his team.
Van has created Second Wind, a non-profit organization, devoted to equipping amputees in many parts of the world where the cost of prosthetics is beyond their ability to afford. He has given hope to those whose lives have been disrupted, often from war casualties.
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“The poster boy for our superabled future is Oscar Pistorius, an increasingly famous South African sprinter who happens to have had both of his legs amputated below the knee. Using upside down question mark-shaped carbon fiber sprinting prosthetics, called Cheetah blades, Mr. Pistorius can challenge the fastest sprinters in the world.” – Daniel Wilson (robotics engineer)