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IGERT Faculty Get Out of the Lab to Test the Marketability of their Innovative Wearable Technology for Stroke Rehabilitation


NSF-funded researchers Drs. Troy McDaniel and Sethuraman Panchanathan, at Arizona State University, have developed a low-cost wearable technology that can accurately capture arm movements while providing feedback in the form of vibrotactile stimulation to correct errors in movement patterns. It is anticipated that this technology will lead to practical applications in physical therapy, occupational therapy and sports training. This work is supported by the NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant, through which Principal Investigator, Panchanathan and IGERT faculty member McDaniel were invited to apply for the NSF Innovation-Corps (I-Corps) program to commercialize their innovation. In July 2012, they were awarded the grant for their project, “Haptic Annunciator System for Situational Awareness.”

The NSF I-Corps program exposes researchers to entrepreneurship by motivating them to “get out of the lab” to interact with potential customers to understand real-world pains, gains, opinions and attitudes toward ultimately launching a profitable business. The program is composed of a workshop, online learning modules and team activities to train researchers to become entrepreneurs to broaden the impact of NSF-funded research. Each grantee team, composed of a principal investigator, entrepreneurial lead (student), and a business mentor, attends an intensive three-day workshop with curriculum covering lean startup methodologies and customer discovery techniques. During the program, teams interview would-be customers of their proposed technologies to test and refine customer, product and business hypotheses. McDaniel and Panchanathan enlisted the help of business mentor, Donald J. Becka, a business professional with years of experience in team management and customer relations, to complete the I-Corps program.

The initial marketing focus of the I-Corps team targeted gaming applications given the large market potential. The team proposed a “haptic belt” (small vibration motors embedded along the length of a waist belt) to improve the situational awareness of gamers by conveying in-game location-based cues through the belt, such as the direction and distance of in-game players, with the intent to later expand and transition to markets within assistive technology, military and remote communication. After receiving a lukewarm response from gamers, game developers and game sellers due to the price of the technology, the team pivoted to explore the commercial potential of their wearable technology innovation for motor learning and rehabilitation. By the end of 2012, the team had conducted over 50 interviews with physical therapists, occupational therapists and industry experts to understand the main barriers associated with existing stroke intervention practices and commercial technologies. One of these barriers is patients’ non-adherence to therapist-prescribed exercises and use recommendations while outside of therapy sessions. This is an impediment to stroke recovery since repetitive use and exercise is needed to rewire neural circuitry to improve neuromuscular control. McDaniel and Panchanathan’s wearable technology is ideal for this problem given the ubiquity and pervasiveness inherent in wearable computers. Upon completing the NSF I-Corps program training workshop, McDaniel and Panchanathan formed an advisory board of industry experts and identified Jim Davis, an occupational therapist and existing collaborator of the team, as an affiliate partner of the venture. Davis’ partnership with the venture has been critical to its growth through his on-going support of the technology, guidance on the design of the technology, and assistance with user studies including patient screening, recruitment and scheduling.

This partnership has resulted in the submission of a proposal to the NSF Information & Intelligent Systems (IIS) program, research papers at international conferences and workshops including ACM Multimedia 2012 and REHAB 2013 workshop held in conjunction with the 7th International Conference on Pervasive Computing Technologies for Healthcare (PervasiveHealth 2013). In January 2013, the team was awarded an AZ Furnace incubation grant for the creation of a startup in Arizona. As part of the AZ Furnace program, the team established a company, RehabDev, LLC, and submitted a provisional patent application, “Wearable Computers and Methods for Stroke Rehabilitation.”

The team’s successes thus far are due in large part to the interdisciplinary nature of the IGERT project, for which this particular project is one small facet. McDaniel and Panchanathan’s computer science and engineering backgrounds have been complemented by Jim Davis’ expertise in stroke neurorehabilitation, and the practical business knowledge of Grant Farrell along with the network of other business mentors and industry experts that has been established since July 2012. This project is anticipated to have significant social and economic impact on the lives of individuals who have sustained strokes by providing effective, safe and low-cost technologies for neurorehabilitation. This innovation will also provide pathways to new assistive and rehabilitative technologies for individuals with other disabilities including traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury.

Address Goals

One important outcome of the research and development activities of this project has been a novel research platform for exploring important questions related to stroke recovery. It is well known that learned non-use is a major impediment to stroke recovery for individuals with chronic stroke. In learned non-use, the more functional arm is often used in place of the less functional arm due to repeated struggles encountered when using the less functional arm following a stroke. As part of this NSF IGERT project, IGERT PI Panchanathan and faculty McDaniel, along with IGERT trainee, Eric L. Luster, are investigating the use of ubiquitous and pervasive wearable computers to overcome learned non-use by promoting adherence to therapist-prescribed exercises and daily recommended activity levels.

The current standard approach to overcoming learned non-use is constraint-induced movement therapy in which a sling or mitt placed on the more functional arm forces use of the less functional arm for 90% of waking hours over a period of three weeks. Although highly effective, this type of therapy is expensive due to the amount of therapist supervision needed, unsafe for those with motor deficits of the lower extremities due to the increased risk of falling, and may introduce issues of reduced self-confidence and increased stigma. The research being conducted as part of this NSF IGERT project is aligned to make transformative contributions to multiple disciplines through the introduction of innovative wearable technologies for motion recording and movement feedback with practical applications in rehabilitation and sports training—in particular, the technology is anticipated to provide novel rehabilitative technologies and methods for recovery from neurological injuries, and general-use devices and methods applicable to a wide variety of sports and physical activities. With almost 800,000 strokes occurring per year in the United States with an annual cost estimated at over $43 billion, a low-cost solution that is widely accessible is set to transform current approaches to stroke rehabilitation, and other neurological injuries, both locally and abroad.

Another important outcome of the research activities related to this NSF IGERT project is the development and eventual commercialization of technologies for wearable motion capture and feedback. By providing low-cost solutions for motion monitoring with vibrotactile feedback capabilities for indicating errors in movement patterns, IGERT PI Panchanathan and faculty McDaniel are building a research infrastructure to promote further research and experimentation both within the IGERT project and across the Nation. McDaniel and Panchanathan are preparing to commercialize wearable motion capture and feedback solutions, with practical applications in rehabilitation and sports training, through their company, RehabDev, LLC. The company has raised initial capital to support development and marketing efforts, and is currently seeking both equity and non-equity financing through investors and Federal grants, respectively.