Penrose, Academy cadets help stroke victims

An entrepreneurial collaboration between Air Force Academy cadets and Penrose-St. Francis Health Services is creating a new device that will help patients recover their full range of motion after strokes or injuries.

Called Neumimic, the project is a partnership between Dr. Glen House, medical director of Penrose’s rehabilitation center, and USAFA cadets in mechanical and electrical engineering.

Cadets designed a brace that holds a patient’s arm such that the patient must move it exactly according to the directions from the physical therapist. At the same time, patients are connected to Microsoft Kinect, which records their progress even when therapists aren’t in the room.

The project started in 2012, and cadets are working on the finishing touches this fall.

The brace is now being used in Penrose’s rehab center. Walter Reed Army Medical Center has expressed interest in trying it out for patients in its Wounded Warrior program.

“We started this project in a different kind of way,” said Capt. Todd Branchflower, an instructor in electrical engineering at the academy and one of the faculty members overseeing the research.

Capt. Ryan Silva is also on the team assisting cadets with the project. “It’s more the way business startups approach a problem – by finding a need and filling it. It’s allowed the cadets to come up with a solution much more quickly.”

FalconWorks, a nonprofit that manages the tech-transfer aspects of many of the Academy’s research projects, asked House for help: What product would help him do his job that currently doesn’t exist in today’s health care market?

“So I told them, ‘I need a way for patients to exercise without a physical therapist, but still do the motions correctly,'” House said. “And I told them that if they wanted to sell it, they had to keep the costs low, or no one would buy it.”

Research resulted in the Neumimic, and House reported positive results using it with his stroke patients because they continue to exercise – and exercise correctly – even when a therapist isn’t available.

“It works – it’s not expensive, and we’ve seen just great results from it,” House said. “It turns half an hour of work with the therapist into hours’ worth of results. It flipped the process – people can exercise first and the physical therapist can check on them. We can set goals and come back and see what’s been gained.”

House said the brain recovers from strokes through repetition – doing the same exercises over and over, in exactly the same way. But when patients are left to their own devices, they won’t do the exercise exactly as prescribed; they tend to take shortcuts that make the movement easier. That doesn’t aid recovery from stroke or injuries, he said.

“The Neumimic fixes that,” he said. “The complex brace allows the therapist to lock in the arm, so they have to accomplish the movement the exact way it’s required for progress.”

From the cadets’ perspective, the process involved working as a team to come up with a solution to a problem. But they gained more than that, Branchflower said.

“Typically, the way a capstone project works is that cadets spend one semester designing it and the second semester implementing that design,” he said. “With this project, they’re finished with the design. Next semester, they’re going to work on marketing the product.”

The team that created the Neumimic was multi-disciplinary as well; computer engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and management students worked on the project.

“People approached the problem from different areas,” Branchflower said. “That’s part of what’s exciting about this project – the different perspectives and the chance to create a product from a need allowed us to move very quickly.”

Cadets met weekly with House at Penrose to test and further refine the design.

“We’re moving as quickly as a typical startup,” he said. “And that’s the business model we’re developing. We have a usable, marketable product. Now, we’re going to work on getting it in as many hands as possible. We’re going to get the feedback, and then see what we can do from there.”

The experience is one the cadets can use later in their Air Force careers.

“They received real-life experience,” House said. “They got to see real patients, learned to work as a team, to solve the problem.”

FalconWorks has applied for several patents for the Neumimic, and those are still pending, House said. Cadets who helped invent the device will be listed on the patent.

The next step is to fine-tune the device and then license it to a company – which is how FalconWorks earns money to aid in the tech transfer process.

“We’re just looking for the right partner,” said House, who also serves on the board of directors for FalconWorks. “We’ve already talked to some companies who love the idea. And they love that it isn’t expensive. It would have cost a lot more money to get two years of research and development from engineers at a company. But the cadets created this from scratch and at a low cost. It’s impressive.”