• Date: April 23, 2019

ABLE, one of the projects selected in CaixaImpulse 2017, is a lightweight, easy-to-use and affordable exoskeleton that allows people with spinal cord injuries (SCI) to walk again. This device is based on an electric actuator that flexes and extends the knee during walking, mimicking natural human movement, and an inertial sensor that detects the user’s intention to take the step forward. We spoke to Josep Maria Font, the co-founder and project leader, to find out more about ABLE, how it has progressed since taking part in the programme, and how this innovation will improve patients’ quality of life.

What stage was your project at before taking part in CaixaImpulse?

Before CaixaImpulse, we had a proof-of-concept functional prototype validated in the laboratory environment, the fruit of six years of basic research funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. The research team – with members of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, University of La Coruña, and University of Extremadura – had already submitted the patent application protecting the technology at the national level. At the time of starting CaixaImpulse, we also had a published pilot study with an SCI patient using the device that showed an increase in walking speed, step frequency, step length and balance compared to walking with passive orthopaedic supports.

What was the highlight of CaixaImpulse?

The programme was crucial to translate our project from research to market, and it arrived at the perfect time! CaixaImpulse helped us to further develop our prototype and conduct more clinical studies with patients at Institut Guttmann, thus creating more synergies with this clinical centre. The programme also offered training with experts from the biotech sector around topics in which scientists we are not fully competent. For example, management of intellectual property rights, market validation, business model development, fundraising, etc. For me, it is of crucial importance that scientists are trained in these areas to connect research with real world needs. Finally, another key aspect of CaixaImpulse is the creation of a network, both with other scientists and with experts and mentors of the field. It definitely makes a difference to have good connections!

What stage is your project at now?

We have recently founded ABLE Human Motion, a spin-off of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) that will commercialise the exoskeleton. The company is currently working towards the marketable product and developing the protocol for clinical validation, which will start in 2020 after freezing the product design. CaixaImpulse has helped us in various ways. During the programme, we filed the PCT extension of the patent, and validated our solution with more than 100 interviews with patients and key opinion leaders, in addition to developing the company business plan. CaixaImpulse has also paved the way to obtain other awards and recognition like CRAASH Barcelona Bootcamp, EIT Health Headstart, or H2020 SME Instrument Phase I.

What are your goals for ABLE Human Motion for the next 1, 3 and 5 years?

Within one year we want to achieve a marketable product for SCI patients and hospital use. Then, in three years we plan to have the exoskeleton for hospital use validated in a multi-site clinical trial and with CE mark, and achieve the first sales of this product. We also hope to start developing an exoskeleton for other neuromuscular impairments, like stroke. Finally, in five years, we plan to have the exoskeleton for other neuromuscular impairments and homecare use validated in a multi-site clinical trial and with CE mark, and achieve first sales.

How far is this technology from being available, and what will this represent for patients with spinal chord injuries?

We plan to start selling the exoskeleton for SCI patients and hospital use in 2021, and for homecare use in 2023. This technology will allow SCI patients to walk again, both at the hospital environment and during daily living, with all the advantages related to it. To name a few, ABLE will promote a healthy living, decreasing the risk of developing secondary complications associated with a sedentary lifestyle (like osteoporosis, chronic pain or heart disease); and will increase self-esteem and independence, fostering social and labour inclusion. All this will result in an improvement in the patient’s quality of life.

What advice would you give to the participants selected to take part in the 2019 CaixaImpulse programme?

My advice would be to get involved in the programme as much as they can. In my opinion, the most important things while following the programme are to create a network of experts, mentors and other participants that will facilitate the next steps; to actively participate in the training in order to learn key concepts of business and management; and to validate your solution in the real world. Get out of the building and ask!

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11 of the 15 projects from CaixaImpulse 2015 have moved forward and are now at various stages in their development.