Editor's Note: Since this story was originally published, Legworks was named one of the winners in Buffalo's 43North start up competition, and founder Brandon Burke was listed among Forbes' "30 Under 30" social entrepreneurs for 2019.
Brandon Burke grew up in an inauspicious family in Poconos, Pa. His parents were hard working and selfless, he said. Although Burke’s dad was the main breadwinner, his stay-at-home mom wanted to help with the household expenses, too. “My mom taught Vacation Bible School, sold Avon, and did some babysitting,” he said.
Burke said his parents instilled in him the importance of choosing passion over obligation when it came to life’s work. “There wasn’t a lot of pressure as far as their expectations,” he said. The sky was the limit; Burke fancied becoming an architect. He liked to build things.
However, at the age of 16, he was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a type of childhood cancer that often finds the large, long bones in the body. Burke underwent chemotherapy and, initially, the doctors were able to save his leg. But two years later, after two failed surgeries, he chose to have his left leg amputated above the knee to allow him to return to an active lifestyle.
By the fall he was off to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He dabbled in biology and biomedical engineering, but wanted more mechanical engineering courses. While he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do, Burke chose to take a course in entrepreneurship, and it was in this class that he was exposed to the concept of social entrepreneurship. He graduated in 2013 with a degree in political science.
While LegWorks was officially launched in 2015 in San Francisco, Calif., and Toronto, Canada, Burke and his co-founders began working together on it in mid-2013. It is a social enterprise whose mission is to provide affordable prosthetic knees to those who need them but can’t get them. According to LegWorks, 90 percent of amputees in the developing world do not gain access to a prosthetic device.
“We operate in a nuanced space,” said Burke. “We provide prosthetic knees for the amputee population.” He notes that while there are many prosthetic knee companies, few are creating new technologies, like LegWorks. They have developed a “proprietary stance-phase control mechanism (AutoLock Technology) and swing-phase control mechanism…. While our mission is social, our innovative solutions are made possible by pushing the boundaries of science and technology.”
In January 2016, LegWorks launched the All-Terrain Knee, a high-functioning, waterproof mechanical knee joint that helps low-mobility users feel safe while also being up to the challenge of very active amputees, like Burke.
Two years later, during one of Western New York’s coldest months, Burke moved the California office to 257 Lafayette Ave. in Buffalo, a historic school building that was converted into a mixed use center. And that move is benefiting the company in countless ways.
Buffalo’s proximity to Toronto—where LegWorks still performs engineering and bookkeeping tasks—allows an easy commute back and forth. “We couldn’t have all of us in one city or country,” said Burke, “but Buffalo is close to the Canadian border, so it was a natural choice.”
Buffalo’s cost of living is, obviously, a lot less than the Bay area. “Being a social enterprise,” he explained, “it’s important to us to live in a way that reflects our values. Being in Buffalo enables us to pay living wages to our employees. That’s a big positive.”
Buffalo’s entrepreneurial ecosystem was also a major attraction for the team. “We appreciate the city’s investment in startups and the partnerships that are forged here,” said Burke. “In San Francisco, there are so many competing for resources.”
One of the partnerships that has influenced LegWork’s decision to come to Buffalo is with Invest Buffalo Niagara, a nonprofit organization that focuses on attracting businesses like LegWorks to Buffalo.
InBN helped LegWorks craft a business case model for coming to Buffalo, and connected the company to workforce resources, introduced them to the city’s investor community, and helped with locating an affordable downtown space—and one that was dog friendly to accommodate the team’s love of dogs.
“We also connected LegWorks to 43North, the University at Buffalo, and job boards for recruitment,” said Greg Pokriki, a spokesman for InBN. In a news release, they said that LegWorks will “create five jobs and invest nearly $200,000 at its Buffalo Niagara location on Lafayette Avenue.”
Olivia Hill, business development specialist at InBN, said, “From our first phone call with the leadership team, we knew this was a company we needed to have in Buffalo. Their mission and needs aligned perfectly with what our region has to offer.”
It’s no surprise that Burke chose Buffalo: Our city’s work ethic and talented pool of future change-agents mirrors his own values. “I care so much about access,” he said. “Only five to 10 percent in the world get access to what they need. If you were born in India and you lost a leg, most amputees there would never walk again. We are seeking to change that.”
With business partners like Exceed, ROMP, and SwissLimbs, and critical support from Grand Challenges Canada, Holland Bloorview, Ontario Centres of Excellence, among others, LegWorks is making great strides in helping more and more amputees.
Burke says the company is working on improving its business model to reach the developing world and hopes to add to his stellar lineup of employees by adding a quality control position in the coming months.
Now that Buffalo is in the midst of a beautiful summer, Burke is enjoying hikes at Delaware Park and along the Niagara Gorge. When he’s hiking, backpacking, or playing golf, he says he works hard at not working. Like any entrepreneur, he logs more than 40 hours of work a week, but he tries to get outdoors as often as possible. He is discovering the area’s scenic spots, making new friends, and running when he gets the chance.
All Burke’s parents have ever wanted for their son is for him to live his passion: making a difference on a global scale. And Burke feels that as his company grows, so does he. He knows that when you’re doing what you love, following your inner compass, there is no pressure to get up and work just for a paycheck. Through LegWorks, Burke has found a calling, not a career.