When long distance runner Lenn Hann finally lost patience with the performance of running shoes currently on the market, he created a revolutionary new running shoe with assistance from the NASA-funded Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP).

A product designer and engineer in Wheaton, Ill., Hann always looks for ways to improve existing products. While visiting his brother in Florida to train for the Chicago Marathon a few years ago, Hann expressed his disappointment with the ride quality, comfort and durability of available running shoes. His brother, an aerospace engineer, challenged him: “If you think you can design a better running shoe, then you should do it.” So, Hann did.

“I had a hunch that a suspension midsole could be built into a running shoe, in some ways similar to a full suspension mountain bike,” Hann said. As he began to focus on this idea, he became even more confident he could design a better shoe, and conducted lengthy research into the biomechanics of efficient running.

Hann began designing shoe prototypes and experimenting with different concepts and materials. After exhaustive self-testing, Hann refined his design and founded a new company – Energy Management Athletics, LLC (EMA) – to produce his patented “EMA Full-Suspension Running Shoe.” The EMA shoe has been tested by Dr. Benno Nigg, the top biomechanics expert in the world, and found to be more efficient than any previous design.

Hann wore the new shoes in the 2002 Chicago Marathon and five other marathons since then. While the new shoe performs better than conventional shoes and is quite comfortable, there was one area that Hann felt could be improved upon – durability. Unsure where to turn for advise, Hann learned about SATOP from his brother, who worked at Harris Corporation.

SATOP provides free engineering assistance to small businesses with technical challenges through the expertise of the program’s Alliance Partners, 50 aerospace companies and universities involved in the U.S. Space Program. In Florida, SATOP is operated by the Technological Research and Development Authority (TRDA) in Titusville.

Hann asked SATOP for help in improving the fatigue life of the shoe. “Beyond performance and injury reduction, runners care most about their shoes’ useful life. Good running shoes are expensive and most dedicated runners are lucky to get 400 miles out of a pair,” he explained.

Christophe Gilfriche, SATOP Florida Director matched, Hann with Jim Jones, an engineer with Design By Analysis, a SATOP Gold level Alliance Partner in New Britain, Conn. Jones analyzed and compared the benefits between a one- and two-piece heel suspension for the shoe, eventually focusing on the two-piece composite assembly. He ran several analyses to help EMA find the optimum composite material and best thickness, thereby improving on its original design.

“Frankly, I was surprised how quickly things moved along and how eager SATOP was to assist me. Jim was technically savvy, and gave us a considerable engineering boost,” said Hann. Based on DBA’s input, EMA has a clear idea of what a 1000-mile production shoe will look like. “With SATOP’s finite element analysis, we believe we can build a shoe that will run like new for 750 miles with 1,000 miles being the ideal,” said Hann.

The next challenge for Hann is to sell the full suspension running shoe to a shoe company and he has approached New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., Nike Inc., Under Armour and Adidas. He, is currently in talks with Li Ning Co., China's largest sporting goods company, and feels that things are moving in the right direction.