Startup Summer School: Rice’s ProsthetiTech Builds a Robotic Arm

The slow days of summer don’t apply to student entrepreneurs at Rice University and the University of Houston.

For the first time, the schools’ startup accelerators—Houston’s RedLabs and Rice’s OwlSpark—are working together, with joint mentor meetings and social hours, towards a shared demo day next month that they are calling the first “Bayou Showcase.” (Fun fact: Houston is known as the Bayou City, as it was founded on and near a series of waterways. They help reinforce that swampy feeling come summertime.)

For this first edition of “Startup Summer School”—more installments are coming in the next few weeks—I’m writing about ProsthetiTech, a Rice student startup that is building a robotic arm for use by the wheelchair-bound.

The startup began as a class project required for all Rice engineering freshmen. The professor asked one group of students in that class to make a robot arm for a 14-year-old with brittle bone disease, a patient of an orthopedic doctor the professor knew.

“We thought it would just be a freshman project and we couldn’t finish the arm in a semester,” says Nimish Mittal, one of the students who was part of the original class and a co-founder of ProsthetiTech.

But while other student projects were forgotten in the progression of undergraduate life, Mittal says his team couldn’t let the robotic arm go. “We made a promise to a real kid,” he says. “He was expecting this robotic arm, so we felt obligated to deliver something.”

Three years later, 17-year-old Dee Faught has a prototype that helps him reach for fruit on a table, pick up dropped pencils, or switch off his bedroom light. Of the five students working on that freshman project, three remain as founders of ProsthetiTech: Mittal, Sergio Gonzalez, and Matthew Nojoomi, all of whom are Rice seniors starting this fall. The base of the battery-powered arm is attached to the back of a patient’s wheelchair, and arm and “finger” movement is controlled by a video game-style joystick operated by the user. (To see Faught use the arm, see this Rice video.)

The group is now working with their fifth version of the robot, which can help users reach and lift objects four-and-a-half feet away weighing up to three pounds. The device will be tested in January in a pilot program at the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. The test will help ProsthetiTech determine how useful the robot is for the company’s target patients: adults aged 18 to 45 who are looking for more independence. The institute has a variety of simulated home environments where patients move through different everyday activities. “They will test the arm, saying ‘this is hard for me to do; this is easy for me to do,’ ” Mittal says.

Patient endorsements would come in handy down the line when ProsthetiTech seeks FDA approval and eventual Medicare reimbursement for the device, which Mittal estimates will sell for about $5,000. “Insurance reimbursement is going to be a major factor in broadening our market,” he says. “We don’t think we can get this without FDA approval.”

Established companies like Canada-based Kinova and a Dutch company called Exact Dynamics do make robotic arms for those with disabilities. But since those devices retail for $40,000 to $50,000, Mittal says there is room for ProsthetiTech, which aims to sell its arm for a tenth of the price.

It’s still early days for the startup. Even if the tests at the rehabilitation center go well, getting the FDA’s blessing and seeking reimbursement will not be easy. And, as it pursues regulatory approval, the startup will need to raise enough investment to manufacture and market the device. So far, ProsthetiTech has raised about $20,000 from grants, including $5,000 each from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the Oshmann Engineering Design Kitchen at Rice.

“It wasn’t until last year when we realized this is big,” Mittal says. “I always had ideas but never actually did anything about the ideas. Now, it’s cool to see how this is feasible and what to do about it. Even if this crashes, I definitely want to keep doing this, being an entrepreneur.”

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