Bionic joints could become a reality

EMMA RAWSON
Last updated 05:00 30/11/2014
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BURNING AMBITION: StretchSense chief executive Ben O'Brien describes the company's technology as "rubber bands with Bluetooth".

Fraunhofer IPA/Jannis Breuninger
An early sketch of the Bionic Joint.

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Two successful businesses born out of the University of Auckland have flown back to the nest to work on a project that could make the bionic joints of 1970s television series The Six Million Dollar Man a reality.

Startup companies StretchSense and I Measure U are part of a three-year collaboration between the University of Auckland's Bioengineering Institute and the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart, Germany, to develop a human bionic arm.

Iain Anderson, group leader of the university's Biomimetics Laboratory, said there are numerous commercial applications for bionic limbs (robotics attached to the outside of the body) including stroke rehabilitation, helping patients with compromised strength and in manufacturing.

"There's the ability [with bionic limbs] to give people more capability than what they were born with - for instance, in assembly line work where they have a repetitive task to do that would normally fatigue them. With a [robotic] device people could do more and have less likelihood of workplace injury," he said.

"In Germany, where there is more heavy industry, [people think] this would be great for helping workers.

"I don't want to speculate too wildly at this stage, I'm a scientist and I like to dream, but I think the ability to sense the body opens lots of opportunities."

Earlier this month the tertiary institutions signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the project, welcomed by visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Kiwi wearable technology firms StretchSense and I Measure U were founded in the Bioengineering Institute of the University of Auckland, both leaving the campus incubator in the past two years.

The companies work in similar, but not competing fields in the wearable technology sector. StretchSense manufactures what its chief executive Ben O'Brien calls "rubber bands with Bluetooth" that measure body motion while attached to a limb. Its customers are largely firms who uses its sensors as a component of other technology.

Meanwhile, I Measure U is focused on the consumer market, manufacturing inertial measurement units (IMUs) which provide movement analysis for athletes.

O'Brien said returning to the university for the bionic project will be an opportunity for StretchSense to demonstrate its sensor in a high-profile industrial application.

StretchSense is already going gangbusters. The firm has expanded from three to 12 staff and seen 450 per cent annual growth. Around 90 per cent of its sales are offshore, with 50 customers in 13 different countries.

StretchSense's wide range of customers include biomedical firms developing rehabilitation devices, sports companies and professional sports teams measuring athletic performance, and technology firms using motion for animation, gaming and virtual reality.

"Wearable technology is going through a big boom right now, all the big players are involved and there's lots of investment in it," O'Brien said.

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"We don't disclose who our customers are but we do engage with some big players . . . Our business model is to partner with the giants because they have the distribution networks to get products out into the market."

StretchSense recently completed a $500,000 seed funding round with the newly-formed Flying Kiwi Angels investors group and the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund.

"Scaling is one big never-ending challenge and we love it," O'Brien said.

"Our company has gone from nothing to something very rapidly and along the way everything will break. You have to reinvent yourself and your process over and over again. I call the problems associated with scaling money-burning bonfires . . . my job is to find the bonfire and put it out."

The company focuses on developing its intellectual property around the design and manufacture of its sensors, and not their end application, O'Brien said.

"This is important because it allows us to sell sensors into multiple markets, but also gives our customers assurances that we won't compete with them in their space.

"The Bionic Joint project will be treated in exactly the same way," he said.

O'Brien believes the bionic joint work will fuel the development of robotic exoskeleton suits worn on the outside of the body, which are not as far-fetched as they sound.

"Soft robotics have so many applications and an exoskeleton is actually possible . . . In five years' time it's predicted there will be 1000 sensors made for every person on the planet in a year. That gives you an idea of how ubiquitous this technology will become," he said.

Anderson supervised StretchSense during its incubation period and is also one of the firm's founders. StretchSense and I Measure U will supply components for the bionic limb but the development will remain in the university, he said.

"It's good to have interaction with your spinout [firms] as you know that they can do certain things extremely well. But developing this technology in the university makes sense as you've got a broader mix of people with different academic backgrounds."

Anderson believes more New Zealand firms developed in universities should be involved in research projects after they have begun commercialising their innovation.

"We need to create more little ecosystems like this in New Zealand where there are university labs that are working on the theoretical side and trying to solve real world problems," Anderson said.

"At [the university] we kind of work in a different gear, but what's really nice is having feedback from the commercial side."

- Sunday Star Times

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