Friends who knew Donald Maurer said his humble beginnings, growing up in his grandparents' log cabin and riding a horse to the one-room schoolhouse, helped foster his determination, creativity and compassion for others.
Maurer, an electrical engineer who designed some of the first electronic devices to treat patients with chronic pain and later founded Empi Inc., died in early January at his home in Stillwater after a long battle with cancer. He was 85.
A prolific inventor, he was credited with dozens of patents, and his inventions helped children with disabilities, treated incontinence and helped people deal with chronic pain.
He became an electrician when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Afterward, he attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering and graduated as an electrical engineer from South Dakota State University in Brookings.
Like many Navy veterans of that era, he was among the first engineers at the pioneering computer company Control Data Corp. and later was among the first 100 employees at the medical device firm Medtronic. At Medtronic he helped form the company's neurological division, designing implantable devices to treat chronic pain.
Maurer used his engineering and design skills to tackle problems that others might not have been interested in or markets considered too small. That included a couple of years working at Courage Center designing rehabilitation products for children with disabilities.
He founded Empi Inc. in 1977. In a 1992 interview with the Star Tribune, Maurer described his design philosophy: "I'm more interested in the neglected problems and the neglected people."
Maurer designed his transcutaneous electrical nerve (TENS) and neuromuscular stimulation (NMS) devices to provide the most benefits to chronic pain patients. He admitted they weren't the smallest or the prettiest, but his priority was serving the patient with effective devices. "We did what we had to do to make sure that first you got pain control," Mauer said in a video history of Empi.
Kay Full worked at Empi from 1984 to 1996 and was vice president of sales operations. "The patients were always first in the way we made our business decisions," Full said. "That was Don's mantra."
Empi faced early competition but became one of the few survivors and one of the largest companies that developed electro-therapy devices used in orthopedic rehabilitation and incontinence treatment. It became publicly traded and in 1991 its shares were among the fastest growing in Minnesota. It grew organically and through acquisition, including a 1992 deal for Medtronic's Nortech division.
A profitable and growing company, the St. Paul-based Empi's annual revenue reached $74 million and the company employed 500 people, half of them in Minnesota, when Empi was purchased in 1999 by the Carlyle Group for approximately $164 million.
Maurer surrounded himself with employees who shared similar traits of modesty, determination and creativity, and he gave them the power to make decisions. But to deal with the stress of running a growing public company he took art lessons twice a week for 20 years at the University of Minnesota.
Maurer is survived by his wife of more than 54 years, Judith Abbott, and sons Daniel of St. Paul and Joseph of Eau Claire, Wis., and their families. A celebration of his life is set for July 17 at Christ Lutheran Church, Marine on St. Croix.