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 some patients’ hands don’t shake as much when they hold it, Pathak says. Using the device may also lower anxiety—a factor that tends to worsen the tremor.
“Having the reassurance that the device is working for them kind of calms them down,” Pathak says.
In a small clinical trial with 11 participants, Lynx staffers found that the tremor-induced movement of the spoon attachment was reduced by 76 percent when the computer-controlled stablizing system was engaged.
Lift Labs started taking orders on Sept. 18 for the spoons, which will be shipped by Dec. 15. In its next stage, the company will release extra attachments, each costing less than $20. First on the list of new Liftware will be a fork, a soup spoon, and a key holder.
The company has also been exploring the use of smartphones by releasing two free apps for people with Essential Tremor or Parkinson’s disease. The first, Lift Stride, uses the phone to emit a sound signal to help Parkinson’s patients maintain a steady walking gait. The second, Lift Pulse, uses the phone’s internal motion detectors to allow people to track and record the extent of their tremors as they change over time, or under varied conditions. Lynx is working with a neurologist to evaluate the use of Lift Pulse as a clinical tool.
So far, none of the Lift Labs products qualify as medical devices, so they don’t need FDA clearance, Pathak says. The cost of Liftware is not covered by medical insurance, although Pathak says he has discussed this with Medicare administrators. In the meantime, Lift Labs has set up an online donation option for people who want to contribute to the purchase of spoons for people who can’t afford them. The company has a partnership with International Essential Tremor Foundation to identify recipients who qualify.
The new spoons are the first products in a line of “home health hardware” planned by Lynx. It’s easy to imagine other attachments for the spoon base—pens, combs, kitchen knives, paintbrushes, camera grips, or screwdrivers for afflicted do-it-yourselfers. The thick handle of the anti-tremor device can be scaled down for new uses.
But Pathak isn’t ready to announce what tools might be in the works.
“The sky’s the limit,” he says.
Here’s a company video of a user trying the Liftware spoon for the first time.
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