One of the biggest endorsements for Bionic Yantra came in February 2020, when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that its devices “revolutionized what happens in physical therapy for people with cerebral palsy or spinal cord injury”. There are reasons for such effusive praise. For one, the startup’s twin offerings — the mobile robot and the exoskeleton worn on the leg — help those with extreme paralysis to stand or even walk on the very first day of rehabilitation without additional training.
“It’s purpose-built and 100% fall safe. At the design stage of these machines, we weeded out all possibilities of a fall. This assurance should boost the confidence of people entering therapy,” says Vaidyanathan Narayanan, the director and co-founder of the three-year-old Bengaluru-based firm.
Vaidy, as he is commonly called, gave up a lucrative job in software industry to form the company in 2017 with Shivakumar Nagarajan, who too abandoned a successful career in marketing and finance, to create a deep social impact. There is a personal angle too as Vaidy’s cousin was paralysed with Transverse Myelitis, a rare neurological disorder that interrupts the messages that the spinal cord nerves send throughout the body. “In his case the bottom of the spine had lost all sensation, which is akin to a spinal cord injury,” says Vaidy.
Bionic’s intelligent devices can be life-changing for people who have been confined to the bed or wheelchair for long with their bones becoming dense and brittle, muscles getting atrophied, and confidence taking a beating. The mobile robot is a bodyweight support system that will automatically follow the patient once he starts moving. It takes away half of the bodyweight to make standing or walking a lot easier.
The mobile robot is a bodyweight support system while the exoskeleton (down left) fitted like a suit mimics the leg movement
“Once the caregiver harnesses the person, the machine lifts the person from the wheelchair at a press of a button and gets him to a standing position. He is now ready to walk and the foot sensors detect this intent by his leaning forward motion and doing a weight shift. The exoskeleton fitted like a suit mimics the leg movement as both robots are designed to work in harmony through a proprietary technology (patented in India and the US). Unlike, the existing solutions in the market, there is no need for crutches or any additional support,” says Vaidy, adding that the devices will bring about a paradigm shift in care settings across the world. It’s ideal in a post-Covid scenario since there is minimum contact with the caregiver, he says.
The built-in AI control system offers personalised care by taking cues from the patient’s recovery rate. To maintain an efficient gait-cycle, it decides how much to move or lift the leg and the length of the stride. “As the patient shows improvement, the machine increasingly allows him to carry his own weight. So, the 50% support in the beginning, gradually decreases till the point he is fully capable of walking on his own,” says Vaidy.
The software collects data from the exoskeleton at the rate of a millisecond. A complex algorithm processes that information to predict how many exercise sessions a person needs to recover or whether he will recover at all.
Vaidyanathan Narayanan (left) and Shivakumar Nagarajan gave up lucrative careers to establish Bionic Yantra
Making exercise fun
Even as AI calibrates rehabilitation exercises, Bionic has made it fun by gamifying the regimen. Arguably the first of its kind, the exoskeleton is connected to an Oculus VR headset to give the patient an immersive experience of playing a game and incentivising his progress. “We don’t realise but walking involves proprioception — the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body — with the mind, body and spirit highly involved in the process. When the exercise protocol becomes immersive, the recovery rate drastically improves,” says Vaidy.
Tackling human-in-the-loop engineering challenges
Bionic devices have solved some of the hardest human-in-the-loop engineering challenges. “We got the physical prototype right at the first attempt. At the design stage itself, we made sure that all the inadequacies in the existing solutions are addressed,” he says.
Super-specialised teams worked on different aspects of the innovations such as control systems, mechanical structure and material science. The engineering part was taken care of by Timetooth, a boutique engineering design firm that specializes in ground-up new product design and in developing technologies for aerospace and defence sectors.
“Our biggest advantage was we didn’t have the baggage of history. Almost all the problem definitions and solutions were simulated and tested virtually along with a multi-disciplinary design optimization exercise by the Timetooth engineering team before we ordered for the components to build the device. There is a high level of precision at play here. Very few people in the world can pull off this kind of sophisticated work,” he says, adding that in just 24 months the robot was up and ready.
Like all startups, the founders initially bootstrapped, raising USD 1.8 million from families and friends. “In February 2017, I met Manoj Kumar, the founder of Social Alpha, and the following month he offered seed capital and incubation support. The association with SA brought us a lot of credibility,” says Vaidy.
Bionic’s ground-breaking devices come for a steep price of USD 2,50,000 (approx. Rs 2 crore). “The prices will come down eventually but for now we are eyeing the US and European markets,” he says. The devices attend to a spectrum of neurological conditions, including spinal cord injury and stroke, orthopaedic cases and in post-Covid rehab where the patient’s heart, lungs or brain have been affected. They are going through a clinical trial in National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (Nimhans). The data collected in Nimhans will be used for FDA regulatory approval in the US and for the European Commission. It will take us two years to hit the US markets, he says.
In 2013, a study conducted by the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation estimated that at least 5.4 million people in the US are living with paralysis. Once the devices reach US shores, Bionic can earn revenue from product sales and annual maintenance contract.
In India the paralytic population figure stands at close to 96 lakh. There is a sizeable elderly population in this country with some form of locomotive impairment who could benefit from this device. Vaidy is confident that leading hospitals can earn revenue from the devices by charging on an hourly basis. Bionic clearly has an edge over other competitors who have tried to repurpose their products for rehabilitation.
Social Alpha’s role
“Bionic Yantra (BY) was an uncharacteristic deal for us. When the founders approached us, the startup was still in an ideation stage and we didn’t have an investment thesis in Assistive Technologies. Under ordinary circumstances we would have declined such a deal as we typically look at some kind of validation before we invest. However, what impressed us most was the resourcefulness of the founders to bring together the best possible partners from across the globe to concoct a winning team. And the proof of the pudding was that within 18 months of our investment, they could realise their vision into a working prototype that they unveiled at Wearacon USA, one of the most reputed wearable robotics event,” says Srikanth Prabhu, Ex- Investment Director in SA.
BY falls in the category of what is called a ‘market-creating innovation’, says Srikanth. “We believed it would disrupt the way rehabilitation is performed across the world and thus possibly unlock new market opportunities both in the developed and developing geographies. This perfectly aligned with SA’s larger philosophy of supporting deep science and tech innovations that have a potential to create non-linear social impact,” he says.