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In conversation with Praxis SCI Accelerate cohort member Human in Motion Robotics (HMR)

HMR Founder and President Dr. Siamak Arzanpour and Chloe Angus, Director of Human Centred Design and User Engagement, talk with us about the next generation of self-balancing, natural walking exoskeletons that offer a full range of motion.


What was the deciding moment in starting the company? What led you here in terms of education, experience, and people you met along the way?

Dr. Siamak Arzanpour: The first time I saw an exoskeleton in action was at the 2014 Abilities Expo, which showcased the latest in mobility and adaptive technologies. I was working on two mechanical engineering projects at Simon Fraser University (SFU) at the time: an inflatable airbag system to prevent wheelchair user injury after falls and a pressure ulcer prevention cushion. I wanted to take the technologies from the lab to the next stage of development and went to the expo looking for partners and collaborators.

Seeing the enthusiasm of the exoskeleton users there was exciting. Then I realized the shortcomings. As one woman walked forward, I saw the motions were robotic. Assistants were helping her, so she wouldn’t fall. My expectations for the technology were higher than this.

Chloe Angus: I was using state-of-the-art exoskeletons at local rehabilitation centres in Vancouver, Canada after being told I would never walk again. But the experience was frustrating because of the limitations with motion. I knew there had to be a better concept.

Siamak: After the expo, I talked with friends and colleagues about a different approach to exoskeletons. One of my colleagues and, later, HMR Founder and Chief Science Officer Dr. Edward Park had recently published a scientific journal article about a new idea: self-balancing, natural walking exoskeletons. Ed and I were both at the SFU School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering. Mechatronics is a new engineering discipline that integrates core knowledge from mechanical, electrical and software engineering to train engineers that can address the needs of today’s industries. Think of a car with so many mechanical parts but it also composed of sensors, electronics, and controllers.

Together, we established a research and development team at SFU and began the development of the next generation exoskeleton, which would remove the need for arm supports, remove the need for a person to be alongside or behind the user and provide a natural human gait. My background is mostly mechatronics design, so I covered the design of mechanisms and motors. Edward’s research was about gait stabilization. He brought algorithm development, sensor integration and software. Together, we covered the hardware and software requirements and then we worked with experts in orthotics and human interfaces.

Chloe: I learned about Siamak and Ed’s work at SFU, and we met at the lab. I encouraged them to accelerate development so that the next generation exoskeleton would be available as soon as possible for people living with motion disabilities like mine.

Siamak: User experience was not on our team and we try to find the expertise that’s needed. As someone who is very passionate about exoskeletons, Chloe taught us about user needs. We are fortunate to have her on the HMR team now as Director of Human Centred Design and User Engagement.

Angus, Arzanpour (middle) and the HRM team. Arzanpour, along with co-founder, Dr. Edward Park lead research and development and Angus focuses on user experience.

Exoskeletons are designed to get people out of wheelchairs and walking again.

Tell us what your customers need. How are they challenged in their current situation?

Chloe: Our customers live with a wide range of conditions that result in motion disabilities such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s, MS and even aging. Many people with these conditions spend an extended time in a wheelchair seated position and, as a result, experience secondary health complications, including: muscle and bone density loss, cardio-vascular and circulatory difficulties, bowel and bladder issues, pressure sores and depression. The chronic pain and discomfort from wheelchair use and immobility results in increased reliance on opioids and other pain medications. Only 35% of wheelchair users of working age work, making it difficult to support their families. The mental and emotional cost is enormous. Currently, opportunities for specialized rehabilitation are very limited.

Exoskeletons are designed to get people out of wheelchairs and walking again. However existing exoskeletons require upper body strength and both hands using walking sticks or canes to ensure the user doesn’t fall. The very robotic and unnatural gait of these exoskeletons can cause secondary complications themselves in the user’s joints and compromise the functional recovery of their neuromuscular system due to compensatory gait strategies. Also, an aid needs to be present, walking behind the exoskeleton user and providing physical support. Existing exoskeletons are simply not a practical solution to the tremendous health cost of spending long periods in a wheelchair.

Siamak: There are over 75 million wheelchair users globally. There is a tangible need to provide a more advanced solution for people with lower-limb disabilities, so they can have a full range of motion and walking capabilities. This is potentially life-changing and not only for people living with spinal cord injury.

We incorporate intelligent motion planning and control algorithms in a sophisticated self-balancing system. This isn’t available in any of the leading exoskeletons today.

What specific solution is HMR providing?

Siamak: The HMR exoskeleton offers full mobility for the first time in exoskeleton products. The robotic joints rotate around the human joint’s centre of rotation. The motion is full and natural. The exoskeleton’s mechanical system works seamlessly with the user’s skeletal structure, resulting in nimble and precise movement.

Our patented joint actuation mechanism uses a hybrid serial and parallel roboticjoint design. This arrangement reduces the size of the motors and results a significant advancement in exoskeleton technology, allowing complex maneuvers such as turning, side-stepping, stair ascending and descending, crouching, seating, standing, walking backwards and balancing – all without the requirement for hand supports or a personal attendant.

We incorporate intelligent motion planning and control algorithms in a sophisticated self-balancing system. This isn’t available in any of the leading exoskeletons today and would serve little purpose with their forward-motion-only architecture. HMR is developing the next generation exoskeleton which will provide an alternative to extended duration seating in a wheelchair.

We have an aggressive marketing strategy that includes a strong presence at key rehabilitation forums and active engagement with leading research universities and hospitals. We already have a high level of interest from clinical testing centres worldwide, from Vancouver to Dubai. I receive an email every week from people asking when it will be available. Buyers are ready to buy.

Chloe: Rehabilitation with a full range of motion is usually done with the clinicians. It’s a lot of strain for this group. Since our exoskeleton is self-balancing, it doesn’t need the additional assistance of others like the current exoskeletons on the market. We are offering a benefit to clinicians and rehab centres by reducing workload and workplace injury with our exoskeleton.

Our vision for HMR is an exoskeleton for daily use.

What do you hope to get out of SCI Accelerate?

Siamak: Our next step is to engage user groups and the healthcare sector, so the timing could not have been better with the SCI Accelerate Program. We are looking forward to receiving feedback from a cross-section of users, both end-users as well as members of the medical and rehabilitation communities. We’re excited to learn how to prepare for and run a successful user group. The timing has also been great in terms of our pre-clinical trials and regulatory processes, both of which we have received helpful input from SCI Accelerate team.

Chloe: Our vision for HMR is an exoskeleton for daily use. We want to see people walking down the street in our exoskeleton. Will the exoskeleton replace a wheelchair? It’s a choice. I believe the exoskeleton will assist all our ability – able-bodied and disabled, building cars in a factory or in an assisted living environment. As it miniaturizes and becomes more dependable and affordable, our future with be exoskeleton technology. I say to people, there’s nothing to fear. People are told to accept the wheelchair, and that’s ok. I want to tell people, you have options.

Siamak: I remember the day we met Chloe and said yes to everything. I don’t know how I had the answers for this technology then. The gap between prototype and real life is huge. Now we have the exoskeleton working in all motions. Think of 12 motors working synchronously together – flawlessly. That’s the level of sophistication we are bringing.

Learn more about the Praxis SCI Accelerate Cohort.