The Story Behind Myomo and their Continued Innovation with Upper Limb Orthotics
Picture this; it’s a typical day for a landscaper working nearby a home. Suddenly, a dead tree falls on him and, unfortunately, severs some nerves and is now paralyzed in his right arm. For a landscaper, which demands a lot of physical work, this sounds like an awful situation. Until he come across a power-orthotic device designed as a solution to this. So, the landscaper takes a chance, and after a few physical therapy sessions wearing the device, he can regain movement.
The above situation is a real use case of the state-of-the-art orthotics created by the Cambridge-based health tech company Myomo.
Myomo (which comes from the phrase, “My own motion,” said by a beta tester) was founded in 2004 and has been developing upper limb orthoses for those who suffer a form of paralysis brought on by accidents or from diseases.
The publicly-traded company has been around for a little more than a decade-and-a-half and has been continuing to innovate and provide a much-needed service. We spoke with Myomo CEO Paul Gudonis about the history of the company and how their technology has evolved over the years.
The company was founded all the way back in 2004. What is the story behind Myomo and how did the company initially come together?
The genesis of Myomo was in Dr. Woodie Flowers’ mechanical engineering lab at MIT. Dr. Flowers is a pioneer in upper limb prosthetics and worked on creating them within the lab with his students. Well, two of his graduate students, Kailas Narendran and John McBean, looked at the opportunity to use the prosthetics for a different audience. They thought, ‘There are prosthetics that replace limbs, but what about patients who have lost feeling and mobility in their arms from paralysis?’
The typical treatment involves the patient going to a physical therapy center and going through the rehabilitation process. If you recover there, that’s great. After six months in the center for a lot of patients, they end up plateauing and there’s not much that can be done for them outside of the center, and they’re told, 'Get used to it, you’ll never move your arm and hand for the rest of your life.'
John and Kailas set out to build a device that would help those patients with paralysis regain feel movement and function of their arms. The two of them started to build a prototype that they were able to test on a recent stroke victim who had lost most of her right arm strength. When she was testing it, she told John and Kailas, ‘This feels like my own motion.’
They entered and won the $50K [now $100K] Business Competition and, with the help of technology executive Steve Kelly, managed to spin out of MIT and license the technology.
And what about your background? You’ve been engaged in the tech space in several different ways. What made you interested in joining Myomo as the CEO?
Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in new, exciting tech and I have brought several new technologies to market. For example, I helped launch the first cellular network in America, one that was spun out of AT&T in the 80’s. In the 90s, I was recruited to BBN which was, essentially, one of the first companies that helped build the Internet. And in the 2000s, I was leading the FIRST Robotics Competition organization.
I actually knew Steve Kelly from the FIRST Robotics Competition in 2010 and was approached by him and Dr. Flowers about Myomo. Now, from my point of view, Myomo had this great, patented technology. The company just needed someone to come in and help commercialize it, so that’s when I started to become more involved and personally invested in the company and became its CEO in 2011.
So, we’ve talked about how Myomo came together, but we haven’t touched upon how the robotic devices work. Could you go into a little more detail in how they operate on a patient?
If you do a bicep curl, you’re sending a signal from your motor cortex in your brain through the spinal cord and central nervous system and to the arm. The muscle picks up that command, and if you’re an able-bodied individual, you’re able to contract your muscle. When your muscle does that, it emits a trace micro voltage called the EMG (electromyogram) signal, which is read on the surface of the skin. If you’re healthy, your body will emit 100% signal strength. However, these patients who have suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury, often have a weaker signal.
The Myomo device is a lightweight robotic arm brace that the patient will put on their arm. There are four, non-invasive sensors on the device which will sit on the skin and they will be able to pick up the trace EMG signals and amplify them into creating movement on the patient. As the patient tries to flex or open their hand, the sensors are allowing them to do that because the motor systems are engaged with the sensors.
What has changed with the devices or business since the company’s founding?
When the technology was first developed, the target market was rehab hospitals. The idea was to create a device that the therapist can use to augment their therapy services within the hospital. However, while there were some initial sales, there was a major strategic pivot within the company when I came onboard. There was a much larger market for people who are no longer in rehab and are now at home and still unable to use their arms. So, part of our pivot was to change the device into making it more portable where someone could use it at home, work, or school.
We redesigned the device around that time into what we called the mPower device and started running more tests with clinical physicians. Then in 2012, we began a controlled introduction to roll the product out commercially.
Since then, we’ve created the MyoPro line which is our most lightweight and portable version to date and have introduced a mobile app to go along with the device. The app is designed for physicians and therapists to keep track of their patient’s progress in using the device.
The Myomo website lists all kinds of use cases. What is a use case that has stood out to you?
The majority of our use cases are individuals who have suffered a stroke, leaving them disabled, and often unable to work and live independently.
One use case that has stood out to me was with a stroke patient named Jessica who was able to use the MyoPro to give her the ability to find a job that required her to use both arms. What surprised me, however, was how wearing the MyoPro helped her get back into interacting with the public outside of her house and helped her feel more confident when talking, since her speech had also been affected by the stroke. As she said, “I am hopeful.”
Images courtesy of Myomo and Matter Communications