September 30, 2014      

There are over 50 million Americans with restricted mobility as a result of stroke, aging, injury and other conditions. The Harvard Biodesign Laboratory led by Professor Conor Walsh at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University are developing Soft Robotic ExoSuits, a new class of robotic devices that assist people with limited mobility.

As contrasted with Rigid Exoskeletons, these devices are lightweight, flexible and comfortable, do not interfere with normal gait and can be worn under clothing. These unique and proprietary devices combine novel fabrics, motor drives, sensors and controls to enhance mobility and return people to more normal ambulation.

Much of the Soft ExoSuit technology has been developed as part of a multi-million dollar DARPA program whose primary focus is to assist the muscles of soldiers when walking with heavy loads. Suits have been worn by many healthy volunteers in challenging test conditions which have shown the promise of these ExoSuits in providing significant boosts to the energetics of walking. These suits are now being modified to work with hemiparetic stroke patients and others with limited mobility.

With 800,000 strokes per year, and with limited therapies available, the Soft ExoSuit can extend physical therapy to the home and improve outcomes. Many stroke patients are capable of ambulation, but struggle with slow, fatigue-inducing gait patterns resulting from weakened ankle dorsiflexion and plantar flexion, as well as reduced movement during hip flexion and extension.

The Medical ExoSuit consists of a fabric base worn by the user under their pants. The fabric has features which enhance gait by assisting underlying biological muscles. Active components are added through cables attached to motors worn on the waist. The cables inject energy during specific times of the gait via controllers that use sensors to monitor the wearer’s movement and log it over time so that the clinicians can assess patient progress.

While some technology development remains, the opportunity exists for rapidly adapting ExoSuits that have been developed for healthy people to the clinical stroke population. The Wyss Institute at Harvard provides the ideal environment for incubating this technology so that it can be rapidly accelerate to clinical trials and then exit through a licensing deal or a start-up.