Device that aids people with muscular dystrophy wins inaugural WPI Entrepreneurship Award

WPI Kalenian Award honors faculty and student team that developed a motorized brace that enables people suffering from muscular dystrophy to perform simple tasks with their hands and gain a greater degree of independence

WORCESTER, Mass. -- June 7, 2006 -- A faculty member and two graduate students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) who developed a motorized brace that enables people suffering from muscular dystrophy to perform simple tasks with their hands, and gain a greater sense of independence, have received WPI's first Kalenian Award for entrepreneurship. The award includes $25,000 in seed funding to help the team further develop the technology.

The winners are Allen Hoffman, professor of mechanical engineering and co-founder of WPI's Assistive Technology Resource Center, Michael Scarsella '05 of Sterling, Mass., and Steven Toddes '05 of Gettysburg, Pa. Scarsella and Toddes are both currently graduate students in WPI's Mechanical Engineering Department.

The Kalenian Award was established this year by Alba Kalenian in memory of her late husband, inventor Aram Kalenian '33. Its purpose is to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship among WPI students, faculty, and alumni by providing seed funds to advance their ideas. Alba Kalenian says her husband believed "the highest and best use of a WPI education is to invent, and patent, then create an invention-based business and employ."

This award is designed to fuel the entrepreneurial spirit by funding a single viable invention each year. Proposals are reviewed by an award committee consisting of Paul Kalenian, son of Aram and Alba, Carol Simpson, WPI's provost and senior vice president, and McRae Banks, head of WPI's Department of Management and director of the university's Collaborative for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The winner is selected based on the novelty of the invention and its commercial potential, the viability of its business plan, and the likelihood of its success. Ideally, the recipients should be either associated with an existing small business or in the process of trying to establish one. They should plan to use the prize to help move their invention toward commercialization.

The brace, called an arm orthosis, grew out of a series of WPI student projects conducted for the Massachusetts Hospital School, in Canton, Mass., where student teams, advised by Hoffman, have been working on rehabilitation engineering projects since 1989. With advice from Gary Rabideau, director of rehabilitation engineering at the hospital, and input from patients with muscular dystrophy, Scarsella, Toddes, and Daniel Abramovich '05 developed a prototype of a wearable, powered orthosis. Scarsella and Toddes have continued to refine the device as WPI graduate students.

Young people with muscular dystrophy retain dexterity in their hands, but, due to the wasting in their shoulders, upper arms, and trunk, are unable move their arms. The orthosis is a brace that fits over the arm. A joystick, held with the free hand, is used to operate motors that flex the arm at the elbow and rotate it to direct the hand to where it is needed. With the brace, the user can grip and move up to three pounds, making it possible, for example, to use a toothbrush or utensils for eating. A lap tray is used as a horizontal pivot point for the elbow, giving the user two degrees of freedom.

Hoffman says the technology has progressed to the point where it is ready for patenting and licensing. With the help of the Kalenian Award, he says he hopes the orthosis can be commercialized and made available widely to improve life for those with muscular dystrophy. "This device could have quite an impact," he says. "We're still in the development stage, but we feel it's a usable device. Right now, these people need assistance in all these activities. This device would allow them to do a number of activities independently."

For his part, Rabideau says the device is one of the most remarkable improvements to wheelchair electronics that he has seen in the last 15 years. "What I really like about it," he says, "is that it actually helps these kids use their own hand instead of a robotic-controlled arm. I think it keeps them connected. It's more therapeutic, more gratifying."


About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1865 in Worcester, Mass., WPI was one of the first engineering and technology universities in the nation. WPI's 18 academic departments offer more than 50 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science, engineering, technology, management, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts, leading to the BS, MS, ME, MBA and PhD. WPI's world-class faculty work with students in a number of cutting-edge research areas, leading to breakthroughs and innovations in such fields as biotechnology, fuel cells, nanotechnology, and information security. Students also have the opportunity to make a difference to communities and organizations around the world through our innovative Global Perspectives program. There are over 20 WPI project centers throughout North America and Central America, Africa, Australia, Asia, and Europe.

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