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Dr. Turner Osler: “Fail often, but fail fast”

We’re upending the way the world sits! The 90/90/90 degree angle of static sitting has been built into the majority of office chairs. 90/90/90 is by no means natural or the “best” posture; in fact, it may actually be the worst posture. And we know this because, despite a century of ergonomists telling us that […]

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We’re upending the way the world sits! The 90/90/90 degree angle of static sitting has been built into the majority of office chairs. 90/90/90 is by no means natural or the “best” posture; in fact, it may actually be the worst posture. And we know this because, despite a century of ergonomists telling us that sitting 90/90/90 with lumbar support is “correct”, 80% of Americans still seek medical attention for back pain. If 90/90/90 is the optimal posture, well, it’s the optimal posture for some other species than human beings, because it just isn’t working for us.

That’s why we created our active chair that ensures you sit up straight and stay in continuous motion to keep your balance.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Turner Osler.

The founder of Vermont-based, QOR360, Dr. Osler is a retired academic trauma surgeon and researcher, and has over 300 peer-reviewed papers on his CV. But after receiving a master’s degree in biostatistics and a grant from the National Institute of Health in 2005 he traded the OR for full-time outcomes research. He became interested in the health problems created by our passive, hair centric lifestyle, and has spent the last few years studying “sitting disease” and ways to combat it.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My career was pretty typical of an academic trauma surgeon. I spent 20 years in the operating room, and published over 300 peer-reviewed medical papers and book chapters. I’m now an emeritus professor here at the University of Vermont, where I still do research and teach resident physicians. As a physician who’s suffered from a tyranny of conventional chairs for most of his life, my search for a healthier way to sit was quite personal.

In 2016, I left the operating room to do research full time. This required sitting at a desk far more than I was accustomed to. It soon became clear that I needed to create a better sitting solution to push back against the terrible chairs that Big Chair and ergonomists have sold us for decades. Working with a team of other doctors, designers and body work experts we created not just a new chair, but an entirely new way to sit that worked with the body rather than against it. We believe that your body’s perfect internal ergonomics, its skeleton, is a far better route to perfect posture than “ergonomic” chairs that try to shore up one’s body with external supports: head rests, foot rests, backrests, arm rests, and the coup de grace: lumbar support. These “supports” serve only to distort one’s naturally perfect posture, leading to a host of problems: poor posture, decreased core strength, and back pain. Worse yet, by suppressing natural movements such chairs reduce metabolic rate, leading to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and increased all cause mortality. By making sitting active we were able to solve these fundamental problems at a single stroke.

So far, in 2020, we won the bronze A’Design Award for furniture design. We were featured in the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe, as well as across several other outlets. This felt like the year that we would begin to really make ourselves known. And we have: with more people working from home than ever, people began looking for a better seating solution than their dining room chairs, and they began finding our chair project in ever greater numbers.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We’re upending the way the world sits! The 90/90/90 degree angle of static sitting has been built into the majority of office chairs. 90/90/90 is by no means natural or the “best” posture; in fact, it may actually be the worst posture. And we know this because, despite a century of ergonomists telling us that sitting 90/90/90 with lumbar support is “correct”, 80% of Americans still seek medical attention for back pain. If 90/90/90 is the optimal posture, well, it’s the optimal posture for some other species than human beings, because it just isn’t working for us.

That’s why we created our active chair that ensures you sit up straight and stay in continuous motion to keep your balance.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the first active chairs we designed looked like a low bench with a rocking mechanism hidden under the seat. We took it to a trade show and put it out where people could try sitting on it, and watched with growing dismay as hundreds of people streamed by showing no interest at all in our invention. Crushed, I finally asked someone what they thought of our chair, to which they replied: “Chair? I thought it was a planter!” Apparently no one could tell our chair was a chair. Note to self: if you want to make a chair you can do whatever you want, but if you want to sell a chair it should look at least a little like a chair.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I am indebted to many mentors over a long career. But Dr. Susan Baker of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health really gave me the key early in my career, back in the 1990s. Sue was a towering figure in the battle to reduce deaths due to car crashes. She taught me that one couldn’t harrang, or cajole or even beg people to behave better; one had to redesign the world to make dangerous behavior impossible. Decades later I understood that the only chair that could reduce the harm of passive sitting would be a chair that made it impossible to sit passively, and it was this insight that led us to develop our Ariel chair.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Over a long career in surgery I observed that when something goes wrong in the operating room it’s almost always preceded by someone saying either “We always do it this way” or “We’ve never done this before”. That is, when a novel situation presents itself people often try to fall back on a standard solution that they know well, or they reach for a solution that is untried. Both approaches can work, but it’s important to remember that the old solution is built experience, and it’s usually helpful to at least consider what went into creating the standard approach. Often the best approach is an evolution of the old approach. In fact, the most storied inventor of the last century, Thomas Edision, famously claimed that he never invented anything; he only improved upon solutions that already existed.

But sometimes one has to simply start over. Sometimes an approach is as perfected as it can be and further progress requires a fresh start; a mathematician might describe this as a local maximum. For example, modern office chair design has given us thousands of variants on the same basic chair design, and yet 80% of Americans develop back pain that sends them to a healthcare provider. Clearly these new “solutions” aren’t working. In order to make progress with the problem of back pain we had to completely revise the idea of what a chair is.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Fail often, but fail fast”.

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room”.

“If you’re not at least a little embarrassed by your first product, well, you waited too long to launch”.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Word of mouth has really turned out to be our best source of customers. Having people who love our chairs “pitch” them to their friends and family is a frictionless way to get the idea of active sitting out into the world. We’ve also experienced surges in sales from having articles about our chair project drop in national publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, but more regional papers such as The Boston Globe or even locals like The Burlington Free Press have sparked a good bit of interest.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

In the last few months during lockdown, we’ve made great headway on our latest design, the Tilt! chair, which is slated to be released Fall 2020. It’s made from simple one inch metal tubing, but involves only two welds to keep it simple, sleek, and inexpensive. But because it’s an active chair, this chair’s seemingly simple design is anything but basic. We can’t wait to tilt the world’s perception of what sitting should be.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

James Watson’s The Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965) was for me transformational: it was all going to be so simple. DNA was just a computer tape that produced all the proteins that made each living thing. By tweaking the DNA one could produce every organism, past, present, even future. Only the details remained to be worked out. Of course, this view was so profoundly oversimplified that it is simply wrong, but pushing back against this world view has reshaped my understanding of how life works for the last 50 years.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Talking is learning; listening is teaching.” I love this insight that was given to me many years ago by a master teacher; unfortunately, I still have to relearn it every day, sometimes several times a day. It turns out that it’s almost always better to have folks explain their understanding of a topic to me; by listening carefully, and perhaps inserting a question or two, everybody learns more.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to inspire a “movement movement”. That is, I want sitting actively to become normal: the expected, default way that everyone sits, all the time. I want everyone to be moving all day long even though they have to be sitting at a desk staring at a monitor. I also want kids to be moving all day long, when they’re playing, of course, but also while they’re sitting at school (or home school). I want active sitting to become so ubiquitous that if someone chances to sit on a plain old office chair their response will be: “What’s wrong with this chair?”

How can our readers follow you online?

Check out our site qor360.com. You can also follow us across all platforms @qor360

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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