Rainbow-colored bow ties peek through plastic, neon-colored ostomy covers lay in neatly organized bins and product sketches are tacked against a bulletin board. The sound of a sewing machine hums in the background. Pediatric surgeon Julie Sanchez and entrepreneur Marta Elena Cortez-Neavel are the women behind Abilitee Adaptive Wear, a company creating clothing and accessories for those with medical needs.
“There is no blueprint, no pattern for a company like this,” Sanchez says. “It all starts with a need.”
In the U.S., there are millions of children and adults with medical needs, yet there are few companies making clothing adapted for those particular needs. That is where Abilitee comes in. The company conceptualizes, designs and produces feeding-tube covers, catheter clips, ostomy-bag coverings and stylish clothing options out of a quaint East Austin home, a home that currently serves as part main office, part production facility and creative hub. Two years in, Sanchez and Cortez-Neavel are already outgrowing the space as they continue to scale and grow their business.
For the friends turned business partners, Abilitee Adaptive Wear is a life-changing passion project. Sanchez, who often treats patients at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, recalls the original inspiration for starting the company. She had just placed a feeding tube on a 4-year-old boy with autism and was speaking with his mother. The fear was palpable as the mother burst out crying, coming to terms with her new reality of not only raising a special-needs child, but one who also needed a feeding tube. Sanchez, who’s been a pediatric surgeon for 17 years, had dealt with her share of middle-of-the-night emergency-room operations on children who had pulled their feeding tubes out while sleeping. Inspiration struck, and with Cortez-Neavel’s help, Sanchez began working to create products that would not only quell parents’ fears, but also prevent infections and empower those with medical needs.
As their company started to scale, so did the duo’s product inventory.
“We started with five items and now we are up to over 30 in terms of ideas,” Cortez-Neavel says. “Once we figure out manufacturing and production, those will be migrated to our website.”
Seventy-five percent of what they understand as their company and product line, Cortez-Neavel says, is still being worked on.
Each of Abilitee’s products is inspired by someone in Sanchez’s life, whether it’s a patient, parent or nurse. Once an idea begins to form, Sanchez says she turns to Cortez-Neavel, the designer, to work her magic. From there, they make a series of prototypes and give the items to Sanchez’s patients to test. The process can take anywhere from three weeks to six months until an item is available for purchase online.
“For us, it’s really important that whatever product these families have inspired make a difference,” Sanchez says. “We want our products to make [people]feel good about themselves.”
One of Sanchez’s patients, a teenage girl with cerebral palsy, inspired one of the latest products: a waterproof, absorbent scarf. The patient kept getting chest infections, Sanchez and Cortez-Neavel explain, so the two went to work to come up with a solution to prevent further medical complications. Once the patient received and started wearing her new scarf, she reported fewer chest infections. She was also recently crowned homecoming queen.
“That’s pretty amazing that she is inspiring so many people with her strength,” Sanchez says, smiling.
In addition to creating items that are bacteria-resistant, comfortable and safe for patients, Cortez-Neavel is all about empowering those with medical needs.
“We want our clothing to have integrity,” she says. “People with medical needs often feel marginalized because there aren’t products made for them. We want to make them feel like they have value.”
The busy duo is currently working with students from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business to develop a sustainable and long-term business plan. As for the future of the company, they want to continue to develop their product line and say they would love their website to become a one-stop informational hub for parents, with Youtube videos and explanations for those facing new medical diagnoses.
In the end, every step of the journey with Abilitee has been rewarding for the pair. As for Sanchez, she is now able to take care of her patients after they’ve left the hospital.
“It’s a daily thing,” Sanchez says. “You’d be surprised at how many people you know or people that know someone who is facing something like this.”
By Lauren Jones, Photos by Erika Rich and courtesy of Dr. Julie Sanchez