Meet Bionicman, a Different Kind of Superhero
May 21, 2019      

When Michel Fornasier dons his sparkling blue cape, he ceases to be a normal human with everyday problems and limitations. He transforms into his alter ego, Bionicman, has unlimited powers, is able to fly, and even to turn back time.

Yes, it’s really him, Bionicman! “The costume creates this special kind of magic,” Fornasier said. “When I’m standing in front of school kids, they actually believe that they’re looking at the real Bionicman. That’s just an amazing feeling.”

Bionicman Michel Fornasio

Michel Fornasier has been wearing a bionic hand prosthesis for slightly over four years. The man from Switzerland has set himself the goal of introducing children to the topic of “people with physical disabilities.” He uses his alter ego Bionicman to do so.

However, Fornasier isn’t wearing his superhero costume just to make himself feel good. He’s on a mission. He works to strengthen the confidence of children and show them that having a physical disability does not make them better or worse than other children. Bionicman fights for tolerance and against mobbing. Fornasier was born without a right hand and knows what he is talking about. He never let things slow him down, learned early how to tie his shoelaces, and has even run a marathon. After all, why not?

From Spider-man to Bionicman

Fornasier has been using a myoelectric hand prosthesis, a high-tech device made by Touch Bionics with six integrated maxon motors that provides 25 motion patterns. “This prosthesis has made my life much easier in many respects, even though it can replace only 15% of the human hand’s functions,” Fornasier said. “I can use it to ride a bicycle or scooter and am able to type on a keyboard using both hands. Also, simply being able to hold a smartphone in my right hand feels great.”

Bionicman maxon

Image: Maxon

Children used to ask him, Does the hand give you superpowers? Initially, Fornasier denied the question. However, after a while he began to say: Who knows? That’s how the idea of Bionicman was born. Fornasier contacted artist David Boller, who had worked for Marvel and DC, and had even drawn Spider-man comics in the past. Together, they created the first stories about Bionicman, who comes to people’s aid in various situations. Physical handicaps play a role in many stories.

“What I want to do is to point out in a playful way that there are people with disabilities, and that they would like to be treated just like anyone else,” Fornasier said. The first comic anthology is out now, with a second volume planned for later this year.

3D-printed prostheses for children

While Bionicman provides the moral support, Fornasier helps out with state-of-the-art technology. In 2016, he started the charity organization “Give Children a Hand,” to which he devotes a lot of energy. A cooperation with ETH Zurich and the Wyss Institute has been set up to develop affordable prosthetic hands whose components come from a 3D printer. At the time of this writing, 25 children are wearing prototypes and continually provide feedback for improvements. “To children, the look is often more important than the functionality,” Fornasier said with a laugh. “First and foremost, the prosthesis has to look cool.”

Ambassador of the Cybathlon

There is still a lot to do: Engineers have to keep developing prosthetics, and society needs to treat people with disabilities as equals. This is what Bionicman fights for. These goals are also shared by the Cybathlon event, which was first held in 2016 and will take place again in 2020 in Zurich (see below). It comes as no surprise that Michel Fornasier is an ambassador of the Cybathlon. “I mainly try out new tasks for the prosthetic hand race and provide feedback to the organizers: What’s difficult, and what could be improved?”

In addition, he advertises a lot for the Cybathlon. “It’s a great event, because it’s about people, not about disabilities,” he said. Fornasier is impressed by the ambition shown by both engineers and pilots. “The resulting developments benefit users in the end.”

Fornasier said he will definitely be in a ringside seat at the Cybathlon in 2020. Together, the Cybathlon and Bionicman are a unique team that overcomes social taboos and builds bridges between people with and without disabilities.

Editor’s note: This article is a special sponsored submission by maxon motor ag and appears in driven: The maxon motor magazine.

maxon supports the 2020 Cybathlon

Cybathlon 2016

Image: ETH Zürich / Nicola Pitaro

In the Cybathlon, people with physical disabilities compete against each other in obstacle races —supported by state-of-the-art technical assistance systems. The second installment of the event takes place in Zurich on May 2–3, 2020. The teams and pilots compete in six disciplines: Virtual racing using thought control, bicycle racing with electrical muscle stimulation (FES), dexterity challenge with prosthetic arms, obstacle race with prosthetic legs, obstacle race with robotic exoskeletons, obstacle race for powered wheelchairs.

The Cybathlon is hosted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH). With this event, the institute provides a platform for exchange between technology developers, people with disabilities, and the public. maxon motor again supports the event—this time as Presenting Partner. More information is available at the Cybathlon website.