At Emovo Care, we are developing a robotic hand orthosis (wearable medical device to support weak or damaged parts of the forearm, wrist and hand, ndr) to bring intensive movement at home for people who suffered from stroke.
The product is based on patent-protected artificial tendons developed during my Ph.D. research at EPFL. This technology is based on an intuition I heard during a robotics conference some years ago, that went more or less like this: “In developing assistive systems we typically tend to replicate (exo)skeletons, while sometimes what we need is just actuation and control”.
Starting from this, I drew inspiration from research in soft and flexible robotics to develop the core concept behind our system. Our technology exploits the already existing biomechanical structure of the wearer’s hand, enabling to get rid of any external hard structure on the hand itself and to “simply” add a soft actuation layer on top. The soft tendons can open and close the fingers using motors placed in a remote control box worn at the waist, to the benefit of an extremely lightweight device, easy wearability and usability in typical activities of daily living.
One of the key advantages of our system is that it can assist fingers’ motion from the dorsal side of the hand, making it extremely easy to be autonomously worn by stroke users – who typically struggle even in wearing simple winter gloves due to their typical clenched-fist.
The greatest learnings that I had from my Ph.D. came from designing these devices with real users in the loop. My former supervisor Prof. J.d.R. Millan is an expert in human-machine interfaces based on decoding EEG brain signals, and has always put a strong emphasis on working together with patients with motor disabilities as they are the ultimate users of these technologies. This enabled me to test the device at clinics and users’ homes very early in my developments, gathering real-users’ needs that were of key importance towards shaping our current product.
The main inspiration behind my developments and my drive is my sister Chiara. She was born at 7 months, leading to a cerebral palsy with motor and cognitive impairments. I decided to become an engineer to learn as much as I could, and to put my skills at her use.
When I was a teenager, I fell in love with the idea of using technology to compensate for motor and cognitive impairments – and I always deeply believed in science and engineering as means to re-set our limits and live with a purpose.
My first big passion was computer science as I loved the idea of developing intelligent houses and robotic assistants to adapt and intelligently respond to users’ needs. However, as time passed, I realized that putting autonomy exclusively in agents “outside” of our bodies was to some extent equivalent to relying on somebody else for your own independence. This is what brought me to work in the field of wearable robotics, and specifically on the hand, as Henri Focillon once said: “Ce couple [les mains] a non seulement servi les desseins de l’être humain, il les a aidés à naître, il les a précisés, il leur a donné forme et figure. L’homme a fait la main, je veux dire qu’il l’a dégagée peu à peu du monde animal, qu’il l’a libérée d’une antique et naturelle servitude, mais la main a fait l’homme.” (“This couple [the hands] not only served the purposes of the human being, it helped them to be born, it specified them, it gave them shape and figure. Human made the hand, I mean he gradually freed it from the animal world, freed it from an ancient and natural bondage, but the hand made the human.”, ndr) [Henri Focillon – Éloge de la Main (1934)].
The Emovo project received financial support from EPFL Innogrant, EPFL TTO enable, SNSF Bridge PoC, Gebert Ruf Stiftung Innobooster, EPFL Catalyze4Life, Venture Kick (Stages I, II, III), and Vaud SPEI. Further coaching support comes from Innosuisse.
The great ecosystem and support around EPFL and, in general, in Switzerland, enabled us to slowly mature within the complex world of medical devices.
My long term goal is definitely to work with kids, because if you can have a positive impact at their age you can definitely change the course of an entire life.
Our robotic orthosis today needs some degree of autonomy to be worn, and this might not be necessarily the case in cerebral palsy, where you typically see bimanual impairments. Our device has a great value for stroke patients as they typically have hemiparetic impairments (loss of functionality on the right or left upper limb or half of the body, ndr) and can wear the system by themselves.
Meanwhile, I keep playing with many other ideas and geeking together with Chiara to develop solutions that can improve her daily living, such as an Android app that enables her to play independently and I co-founded the Hackahealth association where we aim at fighting disability through inclusion – not only function, but also creating a community where we cultivate play, sharing, openness for and with people with special needs.
My co-founder Iselin Frøybu and myself have been devoting our energies to the project since the beginning of 2019 and we have always been supported by a cool bunch of geeks and interns at EPFL. A fundamental person is definitely Prof. Auke Ijspeert, who hosts us at the EPFL, who provides us – together with the whole Biorobotics team – with world-renowned expertise in robotics.
We will expand our core team very soon to have someone on board who can drive our sales/marketing and tech developments.
As of today, we have several proof of concepts but the system is not CE-marked yet. Being a medical device, we will need to receive clearance from SwissMedics² prior to market entry. The latter is our priority for next year, and we’re working full-time towards that.
We intend to keep an intensive focus on Research and Development. We consider ourselves as a tech company, but we have a very strong emphasis on keeping our users in-the-loop . In the long term, I’d love to see our company as a living lab where patients with special needs can come and play with our engineers. By being together, we can learn from each other, developing better products and creating a strong community that gives back a sense of normality to users typically excluded from their social circles.
Regarding the development of further technologies, for the moment it is a bit too early to know, but we would like to target partnerships with similar startups and companies to explore co-development and joint projects.
What helped me the most is definitely to develop something I deeply care about and relate to. This helps you overcome all the inevitable obstacles along the way that nobody can teach you or foresee.
In doing this you must be humble, listen and learn from users and from who has been there before if you want to transform a piece of technology into a real product.
This is what keeps me going everyday – if you set as an objective something you’re passionate about, all the rest will kind of align with it and feel naturally right.
¹CE: certification mark that indicates conformity with health, safety, and environmental protection standards for products sold within the European Economic Area (EEA).
²Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products (Swissmedic) is the Swiss surveillance authority for medicines and medical devices, registered in Bern. Any medical products for humans or animals need approval from Swissmedic to be brought on the Swiss market. Moreover, Swissmedic must be notified of all clinical studies conducted in Switzerland.