The John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (Iowa JPEC) is the hub for entrepreneur education and outreach at the University of Iowa. It’s a place where innovators, leaders, game changers and risk-takers go to find their passion. For recent University of Iowa graduate Erica Cole, her path to the Iowa JPEC and the launch of her business No Limbits is as unique and extraordinary as she is.
The summer before her senior year in Iowa City, Erica, who was majoring in chemistry, landed an internship in Colorado. Her plan was to build upon other completed internships where she’d learned about complex subjects, including the solubility of uranium nanoclusters, and worked on Pu-238 separations for NASA applications. The bar she set for herself was as high as the Rocky Mountains that surrounded her.
Little did she know, a traumatic injury she suffered during her trip out west would alter the direction she’d take — not only in her final year of college, but in life overall. One day early that summer, Erica was t-boned at an intersection, injuring her left leg so badly that it was amputated that same day. “There wasn’t really much of an option other than to remove the leg,” she said. “When I got in the accident, I thought that was it for me. But when I woke up in the hospital, my mindset started to change. I realized that I was still here, fortunate to have survived and was going to make it.”
Despite the setback, Erica picked herself up and moved forward. She came to terms with her injury and a few months after the accident, started using a prosthetic leg to improve her mobility. She then returned to the University of Iowa for her senior year, enrolled in classes and started doing all the things she did prior to losing her leg.
The struggles she experienced while resuming one of her favorite activities is what led to the idea behind her current passion. But it wasn’t the physical nature of being an amputee that bothered her, but rather the internal frustration she endured. “I loved ballroom dancing and was determined to keep doing it,” she said. “When I got back on the dance floor, I found myself annoyed and irritated by the weird looks and things people said when they saw me out there on my prosthetic.”
Erica turned those negatives into positives and decided if people were going to stare, she’d give them something to look at. “One day, I made a stained glass-looking cover for my prosthetic. I put LED lights inside, so it lit up like a disco ball,” she said. “As soon as I started dancing with that on, everything changed. Instead of pity and questions about being an amputee, I got compliments and was asked how I came up with ‘such a cool idea’ for my leg.”
After talking with other amputees and realizing there was a desire for her product, Erica was inspired to take her idea further. However, she admits that she had no idea about business, and the thought of being an entrepreneur was overwhelming to her.
“I first thought I’d sell a few of my covers here or there online through Etsy,” Erica said. “But the support from family, friends and the University helped me realize this could be something much bigger.”
Erica’s roommate pushed her to enter the idea of custom-designed plastic covers that snap over prosthetic legs into a contest sponsored by the Iowa JPEC. In October 2018, she was one of several novice entrepreneurs who pitched their business ideas and competed for cash prizes. Her product won first prize at the event which led to more competitions, more wins and more cash prizes to help fund her idea and the creation of her business, No Limbits.
As for the name, Erica drew from her experiences when first getting fitted for her prosthetic. “I remember getting so frustrated going to doctors appointments and being told that my prosthetic was never going to be as good as what I lost,” she said. “I felt like those doctors and others were putting limitations on me, and I believe that amputees are the only ones who can decide how far they want to take something. So, I liked the saying ‘no limits’ and then inserted the ‘b’ for limb — hence No Limbits.”
Today, No Limbits is close to moving into a commercial space where they will begin producing, selling and shipping products that help amputees confidently display their personal style through custom covers.
Erica and her company take great pride in creating what she says are the most affordable, durable and lightweight prosthetic covers on the market. In addition to the prosthetic covers, Erica is also developing an adaptive clothing line geared specifically to working around the challenges prosthetics present when amputees wear something as simple as a pair of pants. And Erica doesn’t plan on stopping there.
“Throughout this whole experience, it hasn’t been just about being an amputee,” Erica said. “It has been about seeing and overcoming challenges with accessibility and the stigma people with disabilities have. Long term, we want to help people with all sorts of disabilities take back control and feel normal again.”