Originally published by Pittsburgh Region. Next Is Now. I am grateful for the opportunity to share Gus Gear's story with their readers and talk about our relationship with Pittsburgh's startup community.
Chronic illness doesn’t define my son, Gus, but it has shaped and defined my life.
Over 15 years ago, I moved with my children and husband to Pittsburgh so that we could be closer to family. During this time, my son Gus was diagnosed with autism as well as serious health challenges that led to intestinal failure. Because of this, he needed a central line in his chest (like the one seen here) to deliver IV nutrition, and I was relieved to find myself in a region that not only had excellent healthcare, but a remarkable program for Pediatric Intestinal Care and Rehabilitation at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. There was no way I could have known that he would need that level of care, but serendipity made it possible for Gus to live in a region that had everything he needed medically.
I’m Sarah Palya – mom, CEO and founder of Gus Gear, and accidental entrepreneur. Having a medically complex child who also has autism led me to create solutions to navigate the everyday challenges of living with the medical devices that Gus needs to survive. It was his first central line that sent me to my sewing machine to create what would be Gus Gear’s flagship product, the Central Line Vest. The furthest thing from my mind was starting a business, but I did have a big dream. I dreamed of keeping Gus safe with his central line and out of the hospital. The repeated hospitalizations that often go hand in hand with chronic illness affect not only the patient, but their entire family. Every time Gus was admitted to the hospital, our whole family, especially my young daughter, Abigail, felt the effects.
My motivation was to protect Gus and give us all better quality of life. His central line is literally his lifeline and the way he receives his sole source of nutrition. However, it is also a fragile device that can easily be damaged or accidentally removed, leading to potentially fatal consequences. The Central Line Vest I made secures and protects his central line and affords him the opportunity to be as active as he wants to be while still being safe. It prevents unnecessary hospitalizations for line-related problems and gives us all a better quality of life as well as a sense of control. Serious illness can take away your control over something as simple as letting your child run, jump, and just be a kid, but using our Central Line Vest enables me to take back some of that control and let Gus do all the things he wants to do, safely.
Coming from a teaching background, I had no formal business experience. It was imperative for me to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to build a successful business. Many programs have helped me along the way, including Chatham’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship, the Pitt Innovation Challenge, Innovation Works (AlphaLab Gear and AlphaLab Health), Allegheny Health Network (AHN), and The Richard King Mellon Foundation. These programs and organizations were crucial to my success as they gave me access to resources, education, valuable connections, and a sense of community that allowed me to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. They continue to provide support as the business grows. I think that chance played a role here as well, as it was essential to live in a region with a great startup community and world-class healthcare to catalyze my business.
After meeting more and more families who were struggling to overcome the same obstacles that we were, I launched Gus Gear solely as an ecommerce company. The business grew organically, just mom to mom. Soon after, clinicians in hospital systems started purchasing vests for their patients after seeing the product on a child in their clinic, and I knew Gus Gear could be something more. Originally, my goal was to give my son and our family a better quality of life, but as the business grew, I realized there was potential to have a much bigger impact on this community. We now serve patients and their families in hospital systems throughout the US, Canada, and the UK, and we ship our products to customers around the world.
My vision remains much the same as it did in the beginning: to help Gus and others like him live full, active, and meaningful lives, even while receiving treatment. Gus will likely need a central line, feeding tube, and other extras for the rest of his life, but that doesn’t limit him. He isn’t going to “wait until he’s better” to start living, and neither should other patients. Providing solutions for patients to be able to live incredible lives is Gus Gear’s mission.