There are seven million stroke victims in the U.S. alone, with 800,000 new cases every year. To speed up recovery, patients typically enter a physical therapy rehabilitation program to stimulate their affected side and limbs to regain flexibility, extension, and range of motion.
However, stroke rehabilitation can be difficult for patients who have issues with access to clinics, motivation, and cost, if insurance won’t cover extensive therapy.
In the fall of 2013, clinical researcher David Wu saw an opportunity to provide an in-home solution for stroke victims to work on their rehabilitation independently, with the help of a robotic sleeve.
He brought together several stakeholders to acquire stroke research from the Cleveland Clinic and Emory University. With that data in mind, Wu founded Motus Nova, a medtech startup that has commercialized the robotic technology to bring it directly to stroke victims.
The robotic sleeve slips over an affected limb, either a hand or a foot. The sleeve, called the Mentor, contains sensors and pneumatic air muscle, which move similarly to human muscles, to assist the patient as they move.
“The Mentor device will detect how much assistance you need, much like a human physical therapist, and then provide a matching, appropriate amount of assistance. You can get a personalized rehab therapy at home,” says Wu. “It’s been shown in clinical trials to be just as effective one-on-one with a physical therapist at a clinic. It should work as a complement.”
But Wu wanted to differentiate the Mentor from other automatic physical therapy treatments on the market — and make it more appealing for patients to use.
He decided to add an entertainment component.
While in the Motus Nova robotic sleeve, the user moves their wrist and fingers around by playing old-school video games. Think Tetris, Pong, Snake, and other eight-bit games
“That’s the kind of motion that we practice and that seems like a simple motion, but in a brain injury, the neural network that’s responsible for coordinating all of those muscles has been damaged and needs to rewire and recover around the injury. It can do that through lots and lots of practice,” says Wu.
The sleeve is powered by artificial intelligence and tailors the game to challenge the user, depending on their progress. If the user is just having a rough day, the sleeve’s machine learning will adjust for that as well.
“It will make it a little more difficult on you without you ever knowing; all you see is that your spaceship isn’t where it needs to be,” says Wu. “It needs to move a little higher and you’re pushing yourself into a higher range. That’s how we trick you.”
The AI also serves to collect data at a population level to extract insights for treatment. Though millions of stroke victims undergo therapy across the country, there is no centralized data hub on what worked for specific types of stroke.
The Mentor will aggregate data from each user and see how others with similar strokes were treated to put together the best strategies for their therapy. The data will also help a human therapist determine how to best spend treatment time.
“We’ll let you know how close you’re getting to your goals so the experience feels more like a team between you and your clinician, rather than you just going at it alone,” says Wu.
The startup originally attempted to provide their services through insurance, but, rather than waiting for a slow approval process, decided to build a more affordable option for consumers to purchase directly.
The FDA-cleared device is currently in a limited rollout and goes on sale to the public this September.
Motus Nova remains mostly bootstrapped beyond some initial private funding from their board. Currently, 25 hospitals in the Atlanta area have partnered with the startup to prescribe the robotic sleeve as treatment, including Emory Healthcare, the Grady Health System, and the Wellstar Health System.
Next, Wu shares that they hope to add a social, multi-player component to the video games to involve family members and other patients.
“We really see this as a collaboration with physicians and physical therapists because everyone in this space know that people are not getting enough rehab — patients need five, 10 times more than they’re currently getting,” says Wu.