In 1974, we were introduced to Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut who became the world’s first “bionic” man after a test flight crash. He was more cyborg than anything after an arm, both legs, and an eye were replaced with robotic equivalents even better than the originals. The credits for the Six Million Dollar Man open with a group of doctors and scientists gathered around saying “We can rebuild him; we have the technology …”
A future where we were able to marry technology with the human body to combat injury and disease felt tantalizingly close. Unfortunately, Steve Austin was just a character on a TV show, and in the 50 years since its airing, people with mobility impairments still depend on century-old solutions — braces, walkers, and wheelchairs.
Fast-forward to present day, ingredient technology now exists, and we are on the verge of the augmented human becoming a reality for so many people who deal with mobility issues brought on by neurological disorders and injuries such as stroke, cerebral palsy (CP), and multiple sclerosis. In fact, it was my daughter’s CP diagnosis that was the genesis behind forming my company, Cionic, to catapult the development of this technology.
Developing the proper augmented solutions often entails looking at the biological adaptations that nature has provided for billions of its most vulnerable lifeforms. For example, exoskeletons have protected insects for millions of years, but as far as human augmentation is concerned, technologically powered exoskeletons have been around since the 1960s. Mary Bellis of ThoughtCo wrote: “General Electric developed the first exoskeleton device in the 1960s. Called the Hardiman, it was a hydraulic and electrical bodysuit, however, it was too heavy and bulky to be of military use. Currently, exoskeleton development is being done by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) under their Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation Program led by Dr. John Main.”
However, aside from military applications, much of recent exoskeleton development has focused on folks who are unable to walk due to catastrophic spinal cord injuries or conditions, leaving them wheelchair bound. These rigs are heavy, bulky, and rely on remote control, external electrodes, or surgically implanted brain-machine interfaces to operate them. Cost is another factor with exoskeletons priced higher than the average price of a new car.
In April 2021, BBC reported on the promising work from some of the top exoskeleton manufacturers in the world, but still claimed that, “widespread adoption of exoskeleton technology is still held back by a number of factors, including battery capacity, limited range of motion, and cost.” Many robotic wheelchairs offer standing capability, but like exoskeletons, the form factor is unwieldy.
While exoskeleton form factors are inspired reproductions of the body’s skeletal system, we took inspiration from a different source; the body’s own muscles. The challenge for individuals living with neuromuscular injury and disease is often not a lack of muscle, but the inability to activate them in the proper sequence during complex movement. Rather than attaching a robot to a person to move their body, what if we could interface the body with AI that could understand the user’s intended movement and activate the body’s own muscles to achieve it? And what if we could embed this technology into clothing that was as easy to put on as a pair of pants or socks? When it comes to what we’re doing at Cionic, the goal of our bionic clothing is to help people continue to do the activities they enjoy out in their community, have more strength and endurance, and avoid injury and falls.
Standard of care for many gait impairments is an ankle foot orthosis, a hard-plastic brace that keeps the foot immobile. Other devices include walkers, canes, and wheelchairs. While these devices do help prevent falls and provide some limited mobility, they do nothing to address the underlying neurology, strength, and coordination. Because our technology leverages existing strength and coordinates the neural firing of affected muscles, our goal is to improve strength, blood flow, and provide a more natural movement pattern than rigid bracing or DME (durable medical equipment). The discreet nature of the Neural Sleeve™️ is designed to be comfortable, fashionable, and cool rather than bulky or awkward for those who have trouble maneuvering with or are stigmatized by existing DME.
We started with the Neural Sleeve for the lower body because walking is a fundamental activity that is the key to independent living. It is well studied, so we know whether we’re doing things right or wrong.
It’s a very personal mission as my daughter’s gait impairment has limited the activities in which she can fully participate.
Our sleeve senses the natural muscle firings of the body and the orientation of the limbs. It applies algorithms to fire functional electrical stimulation to activate the muscles in the leg in the proper sequence during the gait cycle. One of the big innovations of this platform is to steer current in software allowing us to create precisely timed, nuanced movements of the musculoskeletal system (or of the body). Compare this to traditional stimulation systems, where electrodes have to be manually placed, so every new functional movement means you have to move the electrodes. Cionic’s bionic clothing combines the diagnostic power of a gait lab with the therapeutic power of Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES). The system is adaptable and through machine-learning, the algorithms adjust according to its human’s movement in real-time to continually give the patient the most precise corrective stimulus.
Best of all, the lightweight and durable Neural Sleeve is going to be simple and easy to put on and worn under clothing, almost like a second skin, and hopefully help people move with greater confidence and independence.
Our first product offering is aimed at helping people walk, but we have built the Cionic Neural Sleeve as a platform from the ground up to enable solutions across the mobility spectrum. Applications like assisted cycling for spinal cord injury, return to play for ACL reconstruction, or grasp assistance for stroke; it should be as easy to deploy a new therapy to the body as it is to download an app to your iphone. There are so many amazing mobility innovations happening within labs all over the world, and the biggest challenge for so many, is that to get to market they would have to productize their own hardware. This is a massive undertaking. Our big vision is that these innovations can be built at software speeds and software costs, enabling an explosion of new possibilities in human mobility. Noninvasive neuromodulation is an emerging technology, and we hope that the many dedicated researchers and clinicians in the field will leverage Cionic as an accelerator for new solutions for people like my daughter. The opportunities are endless, and I envision a world where the reality of folks struggling with these conditions are a thing of the past — because once we can hack the human neurological system, anything is possible.
Prophesied nearly 50 years ago by Steve Austin, we are on the verge of a new frontier of bionics that has the potential to help millions of people worldwide. I’m here to tell you, as confidently as it was stated in the classic series, that “We have the technology …”
Editors Note: Jeremiah Robison is the Founder and CEO of Cionic, an innovative company that builds lightweight and durable bionic clothing driven by powerful algorithms that adapt in real time to each individual’s mobility needs. Since founding Cionic in 2018, Robison is steadfastly working to develop the company’s first offering, the lower leg Neural Sleeve™, via software development, product design, and individual trials. He is a proponent and an advocate for creating better solutions for people with mobility issues caused by neurological conditions and illnesses such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and more. This is a deeply personal mission for Jeremiah, whose daughter was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy at 18 months of age. Jeremiah saw the gap in personalized, wearable solutions that could augment function and improve outcomes for individuals impacted by neurological movement disorders, and he committed to a solution for all abilities. Jeremiah earned a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford University.