Balance is something that comes naturally to most of us, as automatic as breathing. But for some – the elderly and those with vestibular disorders, for example – maintaining an upright posture and avoiding falls can be a challenge.
With the help of $30,000 in prize money from the recent MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, a group of researchers and graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, Massachusetts) is forming a company to develop a device to aid in balance.
Balico (also Cambridge) won the Robert P. Goldberg Grand Prize – marking the fourth year in a row that a medical device company has placed first in one of the oldest and best-known university business plan competitions – earning seed money to develop its wearable, vibrotactile balance aid.
Balico’s platform technology, VibeAid, uses micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) accelerometers and gyroscopes in combination with mathematical algorithms to accurately estimate and communicate a person’s body tilt.
The belt-like device worn around the waist senses the body’s dynamics. If the person starts to tilt, vibrotactile skin stimulation alerts them to adjust their posture. The technology is designed to help stabilize the wearer and reduce falls, said Balico CEO Baruch Schori, a MIT Sloan School of Management fellow.
“The device basically is sensing the tilt of the body and [providing] feedback in real-time,” Schori told Medical Device Daily. “In order to improve balance, the patient has to lean to the other side of the vibration,” which he described as similar to a mobile phone on vibrate mode.
A research prototype has been shown to reduce sway and falls during standard clinical computerized dynamic posturography tests in 26 vestibular patients, Schori said.
Incorporation, expected this summer, is the first goal of the early stage company. The award money, Vice President of Research and Operations Kathleen Sienko told MDD, will be used toward this effort and also to develop a beta prototype of the device. She acknowledged the academic and research prototype showcased in the competition is “pretty bulky” – the company’s goal is to downsize the device to be concealable under clothing. That way, she said, it will “be more wearable and presentable for clinical trials, and will be a closer step toward our commercial product.”
Schori said the company’s next milestone after incorporation is to license the technology. Balico is currently in the process of out-licensing the VibeAid technology from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI; Boston) and Draper Laboratory (Cambridge), where it was first developed for use in naval applications as a flight suit vest to give pilots additional sensory information on aircraft movement.
Sienko credits the device’s invention to Marc Weinberg of Draper Laboratory, who holds several MEMS-related patents, and vestibular expert Conrad Wall, founder and director of the Jenks Vestibular Diagnostic Laboratory at MEEI. She explains that Wall decided to take the same technology used in the flight suit and tailor it to his vestibular patients at MEEI, thinking he could supply additional information about how the body is moving to people who are missing their inner ear motion sensors.
“We thought it was a very worthwhile technology,” said Sienko, who is a graduate student in Wall’s lab at MEEI and is doing her PhD dissertation on the VibeAid technology for the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology medical engineering-medical physics program. “After having run a couple of the experiments and having some of the patients ask us if they could take this big, bulky prototype home with them, we thought that it was worthwhile looking into how great the need was.”
That need turned out to be rather large – Balico estimates that nearly half of the U.S. population will be affected by a balance or vestibular disorder sometime in their lives.
So Sienko teamed with Jimmy Robertsson, a research engineer at MEEI who worked on a previous prototype of the device as part of his graduate work, to form Balico, later recruiting Schori and Harry Lee, a PhD candidate in the MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science program. With Wall and Weinberg as scientific advisors, the team entered their business plan in the MIT $50K in February.
The win has generated interest, both from patients and the media, in the start-up’s technology.
“There were a lot of patients and family members of potential balance impaired people – not only vestibular people, but people who have peripheral neuropathy or people who have elderly parents who were unstable – contacting the MIT media office or us directly . . . asking if they could purchase the device,” Sienko said. “It’s been a really positive response.”
Medical device manufacturers have also expressed interest, Sienko said, “but we’re just not quite at that stage yet to be making decisions about that.”
According to Sienko, “the key for this whole device is it is replacing missing sensory information,” which lends the technology to several different applications.
“We’re targeting the first device to help during walking. We’re initially focused on vestibular patients, patients with either permanent vestibular loss in both or one ear,” she said. This population, she said, expresses “a need that is not currently being met with any type of medical device. There are canes and there are walkers, but really ideally these people would like something that is completely concealable and is not drawing any attention to them.”
The company next will target peripheral neuropathy patients who have loss of sensory information in their feet, and elderly people who may experience several aspects of sensory loss. “Supplying them with an additional channel of information could be very helpful,” Sienko said.
She said Balico also is interested in another piece of the technology: the Smart Sock being developed by researchers at Boston University. Balico is examining the feasibility of a collaboration that would combine the Smart Sock’s information about pressure sensations on the feet and integrating it with Balico’s vibrotactile element.
But for now, Balico is busy with the basics of starting a new company. “The next milestones after incorporation is to license out the technology, to raise some seed funding and to bring some additional talent on board,” Sienko said. Both Sienko and Schori noted that their job titles are temporary; Balico is hiring.
“We’re working through rounding out the team, and interviewing for fundable CEOs,” Sienko said. “We want to bring some other talent and expertise on board.”
Though the company only has an Internet address for now, Sienko said Balico plans to take advantage of the MIT award’s inclusion of $50,000 worth of rental property.