Some good things do come out of wars, even if only indirectly. Since 2003, the U.S. Government has been spending tens of millions of dollars to develop the most advanced technology for the men and women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the scientists to receive this funding, MIT Media Lab professor Dr. Hugh Herr, used the money to develop a revolutionary prosthetic foot, the Powerfoot BiOM. The product has changed the lives of a few army veterans, and now a $15 million investment might eventually make the BiOM available to us civilians too, through the company that Herr founded in 2006, iWalk.
Herr was 17 when both his legs were amputated below the knee because of a mountain climbing accident in 1982. He has since dedicated his life to bringing scientific innovation, and sensitivity, to the design of prostheses. His first invention, the Rheo knee, was licensed and launched commercially by the prosthetics giant Össur in 2004. He started work on the Powerfoot BiOM the same year. It has since gone through several iterations on its road to market-readiness. Herr has worn all of them.
The BiOM’s key feature is its intelligence. Every time you take a step, sensors in the foot collect data on not just the position of your ankle, but also the kind of terrain you’re walking on. This enables the foot to adjust how much force its spring-like actuators must expend while lifting your toes and pushing off the ground. The result is a near-perfect imitation of what your calf muscles and Achilles tendon should be doing, whether you’re climbing stairs, or on the beach. And the whole thing weighs about 4.5 pounds, considerably lighter than most existing prostheses.
Test subjects often can’t believe the difference the BiOM makes to their lives. Most other prostheses eventually tire people out, because they push the wearer’s weight into the hip socket,and people compensate by shifting their body weight, burning up a lot of extra energy. But last November, preliminary test results released by the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston showed that the BiOM cost its wearers no more energy than their own foot might have.
The project received initial funding from the Department of Defense and the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC). Then in 2009 iWalk received $20 million from Cambridge-based General Catalyst Partners and New York-based WFD Ventures LLC. And now, Boston’s Sigma Partners has joined in as an investor, giving iWalk a further $15 million to start a small production run.
The BiOM is entirely being manufactured and assembled in Cambridge, MA. iWalk delivered its first five commercial BiOM units to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center earlier this month. Limited numbers are also being rolled out to the Department of Defense, the Veteran’s Association and select independent providers, but the demand for this product is likely to be much higher. iWalk hopes to eventually satisfy that demand, and to start work on some of Herr’s other ideas, such as elbow prostheses and wearable exoskeletons.
We might well be seeing the beginnings of an influential technology-driven business that will harness Massachusetts’s intellectual capital, and bring more jobs to the region, all grown out of a seemingly simple idea – to seamlessly replicate what human feet do, day in and day out. It is a humbling thought to realize that the company’s name, iWalk, is not some flippant reference to the age of the iPhone, but a reminder of all that it has taken, both in money and scientific know-how, for retired staff seargent Justin Lynn to affirm in the video above, “I Walk.”