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In conversation with Praxis SCI Accelerate cohort member Abilitech Medical

Abilitech writing support

AbilitechTM Medical Founder, President & CEO, Angie Zavoral Conley talks with us about the “wheelchair for the arms,” a new standard of care that can help many who lose arm function live more independently.


We’d like to know about how you got to this point with your company. Tell us about your vision.

My father was a pediatric cardiologist and, as a young girl, I did grand rounds with him in the hospital. I love science and I was drawn to helping people, but I didn’t go to medical school. I’ve always been an entrepreneur – even as a kid I had my own businesses.

After college I worked in marketing at Medtronic, the second largest medical device company in the world. That’s where I got my medical device training. Mission and a sense of purpose has always been important to me. It’s an important motivator for me and my team. When you’re wearing three hats and working 60 plus hours a week, failure is just not an option. After Medtronic, I worked with a 3D-printed exoskeleton for children with rare diseases. I saw kids moving their arms, sometimes for the first time. Parents were often brought to tears. When there’s a solution that’s so needed, it spreads like wildfire. My inbox was exploding with messages of people asking for help for themselves and their loved ones living with spinal cord injury (SCI), muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and stroke.

The problem was that after a few weeks almost no one wore the device. It didn’t function as needed because it wasn’t sensitive to human factors, it was powered by rubber bands, the arms floated in the air and the back brace that was used to support it was hot and restrictive. Human factors are an incredibly important piece of our development.

This experience led me to found Abilitech Medical, to create a solution for this huge, unmet need. My vision is to develop a device that will become the “wheelchair for the arms,” a new standard of care for many who lose arm function, to help them live with more independence. We’re helping individuals, their families and their caregivers, producing a ripple effect that positively affects many lives.

Angie Zavoral Conley, Dr. Mark Gormley and Abilitech team

President & CEO, Angie Zavoral Conley (third from left) with Scientific Advisor Dr. Mark Gormley, Section Chief for Pediatric Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare (fourth from left) and the Abilitech team.

By helping people engage more fully in family life and in their community, there’s an important impact on mental health.

What specific technology is the company providing and how is it providing a solution to your customers’ needs?

Abilitech’s first device, the AbilitechTM Assist, is a powered upper arm orthotic that leverages the user’s native strength to perform activities of daily living like eating, drinking and self-care. I’m proud to say that the device is now listed with the FDA and commercially available. Abilitech’s future products include a hand orthosis, the AbilitechTM Grip, and a robotic exoskeleton for the arms, the AbilitechTM APEX.

All of our assistive technologies are intended to benefit individuals holistically, not just physically. By helping people engage more fully in family life and in their community, there’s an important impact on mental health. Economically, we can help defray costs of care. We can also help individuals use a computer and return to work, and allow people to live in their homes longer and sometimes avoid the need for a skilled nursing facility.

We began by addressing people who live with muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis because many of these individuals have sufficient hand function to complement the support we give at the shoulder and elbow. We are demonstrating success with the use of adaptive gloves and splints for people living with spinal cord injury. Our device is unique in that we have sensors at the shoulder and elbow and can show functional improvement over time. It’s a measurement tool. There are long-lasting benefits from wear with daily living too. Individuals are lifting more weight with more repetition over time.

LA Kings media staff person Jack Jablonski, for example, was paralyzed after a hockey injury in high school. He has a full range of arm motion and with our device was able to lift a 10lb weight in perfect form. He’s on the stronger end of the continuum of people we serve. We’re interested to see how we can play a role in his rehabilitation and that of others.

What we know at Abilitech is that we can demonstrate efficacy in daily living right away – within the first hour.

Abilitech assist device

An Abilitech participant uses the Abilitech Assist to regain her ability to paint after years of not being able to engage in this passion like she wanted to.

Many technologies are developed in a research lab without critical user feedback and it was important to us to avoid that.

How are you validating your technology?

During the development of our technology, we met weekly with consumers and clinicians so that we stayed in front of the problem we were solving. Many technologies are developed in a research lab without critical user feedback and it was important to us to avoid that. We’re also incredibly lucky to have an industrial engineer who consults on our team, Rob Wudlick, who lives with a c4-c5 injury. Over the past five years, he has provided additional prospective user feedback. He brings a much-needed human touch to our design, which is a key differentiator for us.

Now that we’re commercial, we recognize the importance of continuing to meet with consumers and clinicians. Praxis has provided a great opportunity to engage people living with spinal cord injury to better understand how they will use our device, what they like, what they don’t like and how we can improve.

In Praxis SCI Accelerate, we meet weekly with a physical therapist, James Laskin, who spent his career in SCI. He’s helping us shape our feasibility study. The program provides important research and demographic data as well as focus groups and surveys.

The surprise has been the entrepreneur-in-residence, Gabe Kalmar. Gabe has helped me with business modeling and strategic questions, which have been important to reflect upon for Abilitech to evolve. It’s all to get the product into the hands of the users faster.

Abilitech team

Abilitech team and family celebrating a great year of progress!

We see the power in being able to help restore independence to people who can’t do basic things like open doors. It motivates all of us for different reasons.

What differentiates your company from the competition?

The Abilitech Assist is the only device to provide a shoulder and an elbow, and this helps users reach a much larger space. Also, our device does not use myoelectric technology, which has complexities for the user, poor compliance, and performance problems when not correctly aligned or calibrated. Our spring-based technology is smooth and even.

We have a special team at Abilitech Medical. We see the power in being able to help restore independence to people who can’t do basic things like open doors. It motivates all of us for different reasons.

Our mission to restore independence has been our north star. It’s important to me that everyone on the team interacts with users to better understand their problems and how our device can be a better solution. Early on, my goal was to get in front of a consumer or clinician once a week. Now, it’s almost every day. And it’s proving to be invaluable in continuing to meet the needs of our participants.

What do you expect your impact on SCI to be?

Our main objective with SCI Accelerate was to perform feasibility studies of our device and document how it helps people living with spinal cord injury complete activities of daily living. We’ve learned that there are many who can now complete these important activities, improving their quality of life, with the potential to help others get stronger. These feasibility studies will generate case reports to study people on the continuum.

We say that success looks different for everyone. Some of the individuals with weaker neuromuscular strength will be able to use a laptop for work or communication tools. Others will be able to feed themselves and perform tasks of daily self-care. For some people, we hope to play a significant role in their rehabilitation.

Learn more about the Praxis SCI Accelerate Cohort.