BU, Harvard receives $ 3M for assistive robotics research

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SEAS exosuit assistive robotics

Harvard researchers used a portable ultrasound system strapped to the calves of participants to image their muscles to test an exoskeleton. | Photo Credit: The Harvard Biodesign Lab / Harvard SEAS

Harvard University and Boston University received a grant award of $ 3,057,320 to support the development of next-generation robotics and wearable technologies. Researchers aim to improve the lives of people with neuro-motor impairments and to help individuals achieve ambitious fitness goals, driving innovation in a new category of rehabilitation, diagnosis, and assistive devices that are more lightweight, affordable, and connected.

Led by Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the project involves a collaboration with Boston University College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College, as well as with industry partners that are poised to bring innovations to market. The first two industry partners are ReWalk Robotics, which designs and develops powered exoskeletons that provide gait training and mobility for lower limb disabilities, and Imago Rehab, a startup founded by Harvard engineers in 2021 to improve recovery outcomes for stroke survivors through a combination of home -use wearable robotics and digital health.

The new award was made by the Innovation Institute at the MassTech Collaborative from the Massachusetts Collaborative Research and Development Matching Grant program that invests in critical research and development (R&D) infrastructure statewide.

“Massachusetts is a global leader in both technology and healthcare because of our support for important research, the ability to leverage our network of partnerships, and our constant focus on fostering innovation,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “With these additional resources, we can advance the development of new assistive devices that will have applications for patients around the world.”

“Across the state, our Administration has made key investments that boost research and development programs staffed by our top students and faculty researchers,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito. “As one of our leading institutions, Harvard has a strong track record of commercializing their research, turning great ideas into new products for use around the world. Robotics and med devices are two areas where Massachusetts is a global leader, and this new investment will help keep us there. ”

Combined with existing resources, this grant will support a $ 6 million effort to equip Harvard facilities with the R&D infrastructure necessary to develop and evaluate wearable product prototypes. With support from Harvard’s Office of Technology Development and aligned industry partners, the initiative will help push these prototypes into commercial products that can drive growth in the Commonwealth’s world-class robotics, digital health, and apparel sectors. An emerging relationship with Bunker Hill Community College will help grow the Massachusetts workforce in these fields with new work and training opportunities for students.

Activities will be centered at the Harvard Move Lab with guidance by Faculty Director Conor Walsh and Executive Director David Perry. Walsh is delivering a keynote at the upcoming Healthcare Robotics Engineering Forum. The Harvard Move Lab is a newly launched initiative whose mission is to support advances in human performance enhancement with the collaborative space, funding, R&D infrastructure, and experience necessary to turn promising research into mature technologies. The initiative serves as a connector for groups across Harvard schools, local institutions, and industry partners who share this mission. Located in Harvard’s new Science and Engineering Complex, the Harvard Move Lab joins a strong innovation ecosystem in Allston next to Harvard Business School and Harvard Innovation Labs.

“We are grateful for the Commonwealth’s leadership in fostering a thriving innovation ecosystem,” said Francis J. Doyle III, Dean of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “This collaboration between government, academia, and our state’s robotics sector positions us to push the frontiers of knowledge, create new technologies, and most importantly, deliver life-changing solutions to patients.”

The funding will support four specific research projects initially within Harvard and BU’s broader initiative to commercialize research that can protect physical abilities against injury, extend them beyond the limits of advancing age, and restore them to people who have lost them. They include:

  • Ankle device for home or community-based gait training after stroke
  • New sensing and diagnostic approaches for high-dose / high-frequency rehab at home that can be enabled for a soft robotic glove
  • Lower limb neuroprosthesis for electrical stimulation of muscles
  • Wearable sensors and algorithms for strength and movement assessment by medical and fitness professionals

Three of these devices directly address stroke recovery, an unfortunately fast-growing market with millions in need, with the fourth transferring that knowledge to the strength and movement training market. All four products will be ready for product-market testing within 24 months, bolstering the Massachusetts robotics and medical device clusters through development in the emerging field of soft robotics and creating a direct pathway to commercialization, which will improve the lives of patients in Massachusetts and beyond.

“Assistive robotics is poised to have a major impact on a host of industries, from manufacturing to healthcare,”
said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy. “Through our investment in this new research and development partnership, we can accelerate those impacts in key areas of healthcare, while also expanding research and learning opportunities for students and faculty.”

To date, the Collaborative R&D Matching Grant program has awarded more than $ 31 million, leveraging more than $ 50 million in matching contributions from outside partners. This includes 10 projects that have supported innovative industry / academic collaborations and investment in novel R&D infrastructure to bolster the Massachusetts tech and innovation economy statewide.

“Our Innovation Institute team launched information sessions on the R&D grant program, designed to uncover new research collaborations that can advance our tech and innovation ecosystem,” said Carolyn Kirk, Executive Director of the MassTech Collaborative. “The proposals that receive grants are reviewed by an independent advisory group, which identifies the key qualities that we look for in investments: ability to grow jobs, collaboration with the private sector, and engaging in areas of research and development where Massachusetts can play a global leadership role. ”

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