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Smart Walking System Wins Multiple Sclerosis Challenge

Neurons

(commonfund.nih.gov)

12 Mar. 2021. A company developing systems to assist with walking is the winner of a competition for innovations to help people with multiple sclerosis. Evolution Devices in Berkeley, California is the winner of a $25,000 award in a challenge competition by Lyfebulb, an advocacy organization in New York for people with chronic diseases, sponsored by drug maker Bristol Myers Squibb.

Lyfebulb calls itself a patient empowerment platform connecting people with chronic diseases to companies, to raise awareness and encourage innovations that serve the needs of people with these disorders. Multiple sclerosis, one of the conditions supported by Lyfebulb, is an autoimmune disorder, where the immune system attacks the central nervous system and damages myelin. Myelin is the fatty, protective substance around nerve fibers, as well as nerve cells themselves. Scar tissue from the damaged myelin, known as sclerosis, distorts the nerve signals sent to and from the brain and spinal cord, causing symptoms ranging from mild numbness to loss of vision or paralysis.

The 2021 MS Innovation Challenge opened in November 2020, seeking new technologies serving the multiple sclerosis community, particularly from people with a personal connection to the disorder. Ten entrepreneur finalists pitched their solutions to a panel of judges on 10-11 March. The finalists’ ideas included new technologies, wearable devices, transportation accessibility services, exercise programs, and social enterprises that promote inclusion.

The judges picked the EvoWalk device by Evolution Devices for the first-place award. EvoWalk is a device to correct foot drop, a symptom of multiple sclerosis, where a person cannot lift the front part of the foot, causing the foot to drag and impair walking. Up to now, people with foot drop wore a brace or boot to hold the foot in a normal position.

Inspired by father’s experience with MS

The EvoWalk device is a muscle stimulator worn on the lower leg that sends electrical impulses into the nerves to correct the impaired gait. The device is paired with a smartphone app that collects data on the wearer’s detailed walking behavior, then sends those data to an analytical platform in the cloud using machine learning to determine a corrective stimulation pattern. The system can also send data to the wearer’s physical therapist, who can monitor progress and update rehabilitation as needed.

Pierluigi Mantovani, co-founder and CEO of Evolution Devices, started the company while a researcher in neuroscience at University of California at San Francisco, inspired by his father’s experience with foot drop while dealing with multiple sclerosis. The company received a $225,000 Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, award from National Science Foundation in September 2020 to develop a system to capture visual data on walking behavior with computer vision, then process the visual data with machine learning to create personalized rehabilitation programs for people with impaired walking. In April 2019, the company won $50,000 as a finalist in the Toyota Mobility Foundation’s Mobility Unlimited Challenge.

Lyfebulb award honorable mention to FFORA, a designer of lifestyle fashions for people using wheelchairs, and GRIT, developer of an all-terrain wheelchair. “The degree of impact of the solutions presented by applicants at this year’s challenge was extremely high,” says Karin Hehenberger, founder and CEO of Lyfebulb in an organization statement, “and we would like to congratulate all those working to improve the lives of those affected by MS.”

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