by Christine Olivo, Technology Entrepreneur Center
This experience sent Akhtar, now a fifth year M.D./Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of Illinois, questioning the quality of life for amputees around the world.
“Since then, I’ve been wondering, how do we share the same ethnic heritage, but have completely different qualities of life. How could this happen?” says Akhtar.
As Akhtar grew up, he realized it was a lack of resources, lack of money and lack of access to quality health care that attributed to the differences he saw between his life and the life of the girl he met in Pakistan. Ever since, Akhtar has been inspired to work with prosthetics and provide prosthetic hands to those who need them around the world through his startup company, PSYONIC.
“Now I’m getting my Ph.D. and I’m doing both the engineering side of things, and the clinical side of things,” says Akhtar.
PSYONIC’s mission is to be able to develop high quality prosthetic hands at a low cost, making them accessible to those in developing nations.
“We are developing these hands that are low cost and we can make them for less than $1,000 with the same functionality as the ones that currently cost between $5,000 to $8,000 to make,” says Akhtar. “It’s a huge difference in price, and very important. Especially if we want to deploy them in developing nations, we need to be able to make it accessible to the people who need them.”
Akhtar, Siddiqui and Gonzales currently work together at the iVenture Accelerator located at 2100 South Oak Street in Research Park. According to the website, the iVenture Accelerator allows the University of Illinois’ top student startup teams to spend the summer on campus with the time and support they need build prototypes, create a value proposition, test demand, research the competitive landscape, validate market size, progress in developing their startup ventures.
Although each team member holds a unique job, Akhtar said one of the great things about PSYONIC is that it is a multidisciplinary startup.
“You need to have people that know how to do the programming of the hand, you need people to do the mechanical design, people to deal with electrical circuits, machine learning and all the neuroscience to figure out how to get the neural input to the hand to control it,” says Akhtar. “There is a lot of aspects that go into this project, so we have a large interdisciplinary team working on this.”
Hafsa explains that her job is very different from those of her peers.
“I’m just doing the branding part, so like the website and the logo and anything that has to do with the design part of it,” says Hafsa. “Everything that goes into making it corporate, that’s what I do.”
Prior to being accepted into the iVenture Accelerator, the team members of PSYONIC began their startup elsewhere.
Akhtar said that before PSYONIC was turned into a startup company, he was doing research in the lab but never had an actual prosthetic hand to experiment with. In November 2013, Patrick Slade, currently a senior in mechanical and science engineering, directly contacted Akhtar about a prosthetic hand he had 3D printed himself.
“He had 3D printed his own prosthetic hand in his garage over the summer for fun and was looking for people who could potentially use it,” says Akhtar. “Through a teaching assistant for one of his classes, Patrick directly messaged me saying, ‘Hey, I have this 3D printed hand, is there anything you can do with it?’ and since then we have been working on making it better and making new prototypes.”
Akhtar and Slade joined the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program this past fall, which according to their website is a public-private partnership program that teaches university entrepreneurs with a targeted curriculum to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research, and offers entrepreneurship training to participants. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is an I-Corps Site, which is geared for developing potential I-Corps Team projects and providing an entrepreneurial program for potential faculty and graduate student teams to complete together to assess their business potential.
In spring 2015, the team then went on to compete in the Cozad New Venture Competition, a competition hosted by the Technology Entrepreneur Center at the University of Illinois. Through this program, PSYONIC received assistance in the form of: mentors to help guide them through the phases of venture creation, workshops to help with idea validation, pitching skills, customer development and more to enhance their skills and knowledge. The team made it to the top 18 teams, before winning the $15,000 first place, University Funded award.
Akhtar said competing in Cozad helped develop PSYONIC into a business.
“For the last year or so before Cozad, we had been focusing on the technology, research and features, but we hadn’t necessarily focused on developing the market and distribution,” says Akhtar. “Going through Cozad really helped us think about those issues and how we are actually going to make a successful business out of this.”
Also during Spring 2015, Aadeel was nominated for the Illinois Innovation Prize. This prize is awarded on an annual basis to the most innovative student on campus. While Aadeel did not actually win the award, he did make it to the interview portion.
While currently working at the Accelerator, Hafsa said the company is working on branding themselves. She said she is currently working on designing a company t-shirt, website and logo.
“We want people to know what we’re about without Aadeel having to be there,” says Hafsa.
The company is also working on expanding and getting its own office space within EnterpriseWorks.
Although PSYONIC has been successful so far through Cozad and the start of the company, Akhtar says the team has ran into problems along the way.
One problem the team has faced is making the prosthetic hand prototypes strong enough to resist any type of damage.
“We had some problems with some of our prototypes. Since they are 3D printed, they kind of break all the time,” says Akhtar. “So, one of the challenges we are trying to overcome is, how do we make this a really robust hand? Especially if we are going to deploy these in developing nations, they need to have it so that they can wear it every day and not have to rely on having to repair it all the time.”
Although this is a current problem for the startup, the team said they are confident that they can overcome it. In order to do so, Akhtar said they are working on making the hands more compliant.
“For example, if something hits the hand, instead of just being solid and rigid, the hand will have some give to it like our own fingers,” says Akhtar. “We’re looking into using some rubber or flexible plastic that can give it some compliance.”
Despite minor challenges faced, PSYONIC has had several milestones in the progression of the startup.
One major milestone for the team occurred last summer on a trip to Ecuador. PSYONIC was able to test an earlier prototype out on an amputee that had lost his hand 30 years ago in a war.
“In minutes he was able to do all those different gestures and controls, like make a pinch and doing three finger grasping,” says Akhtar.
Akhtar says there are many qualities about PSYONIC’s prosthetic hands that set them apart from other companies selling these hands.
Akhtar said that most $30,000 to $40,000 prosthetic hands only allow users to open and close the hand, not making it very intuitive to switch to different hand gestures. In order to fix that, PSYONIC has developed a machine learning algorithm that allows the user to do different gestures, such as pinching and three finger grasping.
Another milestone the team has reached is making the prosthetic hand give back sensory feedback.
“No commercial prosthetic device has any form of sensory feedback, meaning that if an amputee were to touch a table with this current prosthetic hand, he wouldn’t be able to feel it at all,” says Akhtar. “And in our hand, we actually have a low cost pressure sensor in the fingertip, which is just based off of barometric pressure sensor, which is in every ones cellphones and costs less than five dollars.”
The team said when amputees touch something such as a table, the prosthetic hand will be able to relay that information into the skin by sending an electrical current, which will feel like a vibration. The harder the amputee pushes down on a service, the more they should be able to feel it.
“So, if you were to grab a bottle of water or hold an egg, you can really determine when to stop closing your grip so the hand doesn’t crush it,” says Akhtar.
Another important milestone was developing a mechanism that gives the amputee an idea of where their hand is when they aren’t looking at it.
Akhtar explains that another problem amputees face is that if they close their eyes and move the prosthetic fingers around, the amputee won’t know where their hand is. But if someone with a real hand were to close their eyes, they can tell exactly where their hand is.
“So if the amputee wanted to do something like open a door handle, they would have to continuously look at their hand the entire time,” says Akhtar.
In order to fix this, Akhtar said the team came up with a mechanism in the lab that gives sensation back to the user just by using a piece of fishing line, a joint in the finger and a 3D printed piece the size of a quarter.
“All it involves is, we take a piece of fishing line and attach it to the joint of the finger. Then on the other end, we have a little 3D printed piece the size of a quarter and we tape it down to their skin,” says Akhtar. “What ends up happening when the finger moves is it tugs on that fishing line, and then it stretches your skin so you can tell where the finger is by the amount of stretch that you feel on the skin.”
Akhtar says it only costs 10 cents to implement this on any prosthetic hand.
Looking forward, Akhtar says he is most excited to grow PSYONIC as a business through the iVenture Accelerator.
Being a part of the accelerator has helped PYSONIC pave the future for the business, says Hafsa.
“This program has done such a great job with providing us with people who can help us, such as Jed Taylor, for us to grow as a company,” says Hafsa.
Akhtar said he agreed with Hafsa, saying that the most beneficial aspect of the accelerator has been putting the team in contact with people who can really help PSYONIC prepare for the future.
“For example, we talk to people who can help us with legal services, in terms of licensing the technology and getting patents and other legal things that we need to take care of there,” says Akhtar.
Akhtar says he also agreed with Hafsa that Jed Taylor, the Director of Operations at the Technology Entrepreneur Center, has been a great help to the future of PSYONIC.
“In terms of applying for grants, Jed has been an enormous help with us figuring out exactly what we need to do and how to prepare,” says Akhtar.
Hafsa and Akhtar said that the accelerator has been a benefit for the startup.
“It’s fun having other people working toward similar goals,” says Hafsa.
“Just seeing a lot of the different startups, it’s helpful to see where everyone else is at and bounce ideas off of each other,” says Akhtar. “It really helps to see teams that are working on similar aspects and see what resources they are using.”
Akhtar says the team is thinking about basing PSYONIC in both Champaign and Chicago areas in the future, having the technical research of PSYONIC happening in Champaign, and then helping the larger patient population in Chicago.
Akhtar is confident that PSYONIC will succeed in the future.
“I really feel like I can do this,” says Akhtar.
Update: Patrick Slade was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in Healthcare for 2016.