Myomo Follows “Path of Perseverance,” Rolls Out Next-Gen Robotic Arm System for Stroke Patients

A rehab-robotics startup out of MIT is getting a second lease on life. And if the company succeeds in reaching the masses with its latest effort, a lot of stroke patients might just feel the same way.

Myomo, a Cambridge, MA-based rehabilitation and medical tech firm, announced this week it has rolled out version 2.0 of its powered robotic elbow brace that helps people with neurological impairments move their arms. The idea is simple, and it seems to work: stroke patients can wear the sleeve-like device to regain some range of movement and to strengthen their muscles over time. The technology works by picking up electrical signals on the skin when a patient is trying to move a partially paralyzed limb; the robotic system then provides a small amount of force to help the person extend or bend their elbow, to do things like pick up a plate or hold onto a walker. (More on what’s new with the system below.)

This is a classic story of a new technology that has been hard to sell—and the ups and downs of a young company that has taken its lumps but has lived to fight another day. Xconomy first wrote about Myomo in 2007, when the startup received FDA approval to market its first product, and again in 2009, when the firm pulled back and focused on research and development after slow sales. Myomo went down to four employees at the end of 2008, but is now back up to 12 full-timers.

“This is the path of perseverance,” says Myomo CEO and co-founder Steve Kelly. “We’re on track to ship more units this year than in the entire history of the company.”

Why should Myomo fare any better this time around? Let’s start with the latest incarnation of its product. Kelly and executive vice president Ela Lewis say the previous version was more of a “clinical product,” whereas the new version is more of a true “assistive device” that patients can use at home. The current product is streamlined and more portable. It has two electrode sensors (for biceps and triceps) instead of one. It includes wireless networking that connects to a mobile phone via an Android app that lets patients track their progress—range of motion, how many movements they’ve done, and so on. And it will include a structured program for clinical and home use, complete with video-game mechanics (for motivation) and a “connected health” Web portal that a physical therapist or family member can log into to check up on the patient’s progress.

Some hopeful signs: Myomo has new partnerships with hospitals and clinicians around Boston, Chicago, and Southern California, as well as the University of Cincinnati’s Drake Center, University of Ulster (for game mechanics), and, as of last month, the Cleveland Clinic.

Marketing to patients and doctors is still a key challenge, of course. But Myomo’s portable device sells for $5,250, instead of around $80,000 for a stationary rehabilitation machine you might find in a hospital. The U.S. market for the device is a decent size—about 4 million patients and growing. There are some 400,000 new stroke patients a year in the U.S. who could benefit from it (out of a total annual pool of 750,000), Lewis says. But to reach them, the company needs to get two messages out to the public, according to Kelly. One is that some stroke patients can and do improve their arm function with therapy and practice (apparently this is not widely known). The second is that “personal robotics” technology can help patients get there.

Myomo has been backed by angel investors to date (less than $5 million in financing as of April 2009). Kelly wouldn’t rule out raising a venture capital round, but the firm has no stated plans to do so. The company is branching out to customers beyond stroke patients, including people with brain or spinal cord injuries and other forms of muscle weakness. If Myomo is successful with its elbow device, Kelly says, it could also move into assisting other joints in the body. (You can read about powered “exoskeleton” projects here, which have a similar concept but are for different applications, mostly military.)

Kelly talked a little about his vision for a “personal mobility system” that, in principle, could encompass something like a full-body suit for roughly the price of a car. But that’s for even further down the road. For now, Myomo is focusing on a specific joint (the elbow) and a specific pool of patients (those who have suffered strokes or other neurological injuries). And it wants to sell a lot of devices, fast.

“We can help a lot of people with this,” Kelly says. “Just being able to move is so elemental.”

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