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Sport fabric is a big seller

Cropper Medical markets orthopedic products worldwide

ASHLAND - Three things tell Dean Cropper his business will thrive: growing interest in athletics among all ages, increasing repetitive motion injuries and Bio Skin, a stretchy, comfortable support fabric he invented and patented for use in braces for knees, wrists and backs.

His Ashland company, Cropper Medical Inc., markets the braces and Bio Skin shorts worldwide to spas, clinics, military units, manufacturing sites and sports teams, including the Denver Broncos, Utah Jazz, L.A. Lakers, San Diego Padres and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Cropper Medical marketed standard orthopedic devices from 1986 until 1994, when he got the idea of displacing thick, sweaty neoprene braces with a thin, lightweight "smartskin" fabric made of polyurethane sandwiched between Lycra layers.

It outperforms neoprene by sliding on easily, strapping with Velcro, stretching in any direction and allowing heat and moisture to pass out of the covered area, he said.

"We tell buyers we have a whole new approach and they say 'we hope it's not neoprene.' When they try it, they say it's so cool. Every orthopedic surgeon and trainer we showed the ankle brace to went wild."

Cropper makes "compression shorts" that reduce injuries and prevent that "battered feeling" by keeping muscles in place for the next movement when you're jumping around, as in basketball. In biking, they're also better than Lycra shorts, which do little more than make a "fashion statement," he said.

Cropper devices are available in area stores, retailing at around $65 for a knee brace, $25 for a wrist brace and $80 for shorts.

Using computer-aided sewing machines, his 30 employees sew together Bio Skin braces and shorts in the 13,000-square-foot Cropper factory. They're marketed by 70 sales representatives in the United States and 14 abroad.

Cropper declined to give sales figures but said his privately held company expanded sales by 30 percent in 2000 and expects to double sales this year.

"It excites me that there's such a huge market, an estimated 1.5 billion buyers worldwide - or one-fourth of the world population," he said. "Our advantage is that we stand apart. We're not just another 'me-too' operation."

Propelling that growth is an aging population that wants to stay active and a world full of children getting involved in high-performance sports with scholarship-minded parents yelling from the sidelines, Cropper said.

John Darling is a free-lance writer living in Ashland.

Sport fabric is a big seller