Recently, Lauren Jarmusz - a Doctor of Physical Therapy Student at Northeastern University graduating in May 2016 - and I asked Dr. Maciej Pietrusinski, who has spent his career working in medical robotics, about using robotics to improve physical functioning. Dr. Pietrusinski is the Founder and President of AndrosRobotics LLC; a fiscally sponsored National Science Foundation company that currently develops intelligent robotic devices for intensive gait training and enhanced human mobility. Dr. Pietrusinski previously worked for NyproMold and Mestek. He was also a finalist for Best Paper Award in Medical Robotics at the 2010 ICRA, Anchorage, AK. Here's our interview:
Marquis Cabrera: What is AndrosRobotics (AR)? Where did you get the idea from? Who has helped pump life into your idea?
Dr. Maciej Pietrusinski: The Robotic Leg Advancement Device (R-LAD) is an accessory, which mounts onto medical walker frames, to help the physical therapists in administering gait training to stroke patients in the clinical setting. During my Ph.D. I developed a robotic system for controlling pelvic motion during therapy, and upon graduating we received a small grant from the National Science Foundation, to investigate whether there is a market for such a device. After interviewing 80 clinicians we learned that this device is too complicated and it would be too expensive. But that same feedback led us to come up with the R-LAD concept, a much simpler device that most hospitals and clinics can afford. A $225k grant from NSF made it possible to build a prototype, which attracted our current industrial partner. This company is now committed to helping us bring the R-LAD to market in less than 2 years.
Lauren Jarmusz, sDPT: What pain point is AR is solving? What is the primary goal?
Dr. Maciej Pietrusinski: Gait training is largely performed manually today, often by 2 or 3 physical therapists working with just one patient at a time. This is expensive, and it puts the therapists at risk of injury. The R-LAD makes it possible for just one therapist to administer equivalent gait training therapy, without putting their own body at risk.
Lauren Jarmusz, sDPT: Is this a substitute or a compliment to a Physical Therapist?
Dr. Maciej Pietrusinski: The R-LAD is meant to compliment the Physical Therapist.
Marquis Cabrera: Can you give me a use case on how AR works?
Dr. Maciej Pietrusinski: At a rehabilitation hospital, a stroke patient is strapped into the walker for their daily 45-min long gait training session. The R-LAD is mounted on that same walker. The robotic leg brace of the R-LAD is strapped onto the 'weak' leg of the patient. As the therapist pushes the walker, the patient attempts to walk, and when its time for them to flex the leg in the knee and swing the leg forward, the R-LAD's leg brace helps the patient perform those actions. The level of assistance can be adjusted from the maximum level down to no assistance, and anywhere in between. As the patient's gait improves, the level of assistance can be reduced, to ensure that the patient is challanged. Challenging patients is necessary for inducing neuro-rehabilitation and brain plasticity, which is the process of generating new neural pathways in the brain, to take place of the pathways which were destroyed by stroke.
Marquis Cabrera: Have you gained traction in the market with your MVP?
Dr. Maciej Pietrusinski: The R-LAD will be on the market in about 2 years. In February of 2016 we placed 3rd in the international Robotics for Good competition in Dubai, out of 664 submissions from around the world, and this result was an affirmation that we are on the right track.
Marquis Cabrera: Although pithy, what is the future of AR?
Dr. Maciej Pietrusinski: AndrosRobotics will continue working on additional technological solutions for physical therapy and for collaborative robotics, a broader category of robots which are meant to work with and next to humans.
Lauren Jarmusz, sDPT: How has Northeastern University helped to bring AR to life and market?
Dr. Maciej Pietrusinski: From the very beginning of AndrosRobotics LLC in 2012, we were guided by our business mentors from the Health Science Entrepreneurs at Bouve College [of Health Sciences]. Also, Northeasten University took the financial risk of protecting the intellectual property contained in the R-LAD when they filed the patent application.
Lauren Jarmusz, sDPT: What advice would you give to someone looking to use engineering methods to improve musculoskeletal health?
Dr. Maciej Pietrusinski: I will answer about improving neuro-rehabilitation, because the R-LAD is not for musculoskeletal therapy. Talking to the end users and the customers is critical. Engineers need to get out of their labs and learn what the real-world problems are, so that whatever they come up with is practical and useful.