The tremors that disable millions of people with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease might eventually be controlled through drugs and implantable brain stimulation devices. But while patients wait for a medical breakthrough, a young engineering PhD in the Bay Area is thinking, “Maybe what they need is a better spoon.”
Anupam Pathak’s idea, first hatched in 2009, was simple. If medical researchers couldn’t yet stop the trembling, maybe he could invent tools that would compensate for the uncontrolled movements that make it hard for people to continue the most basic tasks of life, such as eating.
The idea first arose as Pathak was working with the kind of small gizmos that correct for the often-wobbly grip of mobile phone users as they text or search the Web on the street. As a graduate student in mechanical engeering at the University of Michigan, Pathak had been part of a team funded by the US military to help shaky young soldiers better aim their weapons under stressful battle conditions. When he graduated, Pathak wanted to apply the same technology to health care problems.
“Most of us know of someone who is affected by tremors,” says Pathak, 31. Among them are friends his own age, he says. “It’s not causing disability right now, but it will.”
The San Francisco company he founded, Lynx Design, is now taking orders for its first batch of computer-controlled spoons under the brand name Lift Labs. In the spoon’s chunky handle, motion sensors detect the user’s tremor. Although the handle continues to shake like the user’s hand, motors in the handle move the spoon attachment in the direction opposite to the tremor. The net effect is to keep the spoon attachment more steady, says Pathak, Lynx’s CEO. The idea is to keep the peas or grapes on the spoon from bouncing out onto the table before they can ever make it to the diner’s mouth.
Difficulty in eating does more harm than just extending meal times for sufferers from Parkinson’s disease or a neurological disorder called Essential Tremor, which has similar early symptoms. Seeing their food scatter on the table as their hands shake can cause painful embarrassment, and afflicted people often avoid social events or eating in restaurants, according to the International Essential Tremor Foundation.
Pathak estimates that 10 million people in the United States are coping with Essential Tremor. About a million people suffer from Parkinson’s disease, with as many as 60,000 newly diagnosed US cases a year, according to the National Parkinson Foundation.
Pathak says the challenge was to create a device that could distinguish between the frustrating involuntary movements of tremor and the intentional movements of a diner trying to scoop up a mouthful and raise it to be eaten. The solution was an onboard computer in the spoon’s handle, and a computer algorithm that could correctly interpret the signals from the motion sensors.
“We tested hundreds of variations of algorithms,” Pathak says. The first version of the device was a plastic picnic spoon with wires sprouting from it. But the initial proof of concept work was enough to win support from the National Institutes of Health, which awarded Lynx $800,000. Angel investors have kicked in $1 million more.
Lynx, under the Lift Labs name, is also a portfolio company of Rock Health, a non-profit seed fund and accelerator program that supports digital health startups. Rock Health, based at San Francisco’s Chinatown but soon to move to Mission Bay, is currently raising a collective fund of as much as $800,000 to be shared with Lift Labs and nine other fledgling companies supported by the accelerator, Pathak says.
The Lift Labs computer-controlled spoon is the first of a planned line of tremor-canceling tools called Liftware. The product, which costs $295, includes a battery charger, a handle about the size of an electric toothbrush base, and the detachable spoon. Motors inside the handle can move the spoon up, down, right, and left, to compensate for the user’s trembling.
Part of the benefit of the device may be ergonomic, Pathak acknowledges. Gripping the bulkier handle may engage different muscles than grasping a thin conventional spoon handle. A neurologist noted that … Next Page »
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