In 1992 James Cameron showed in “Terminator 2” how a mechanical robotic hand can look like, you certainly remember this scene when Arnold Schwarceneger dresses off a “skin” from his hand. 30 years have passed and today lots of startup companies develop different robotic hands, which make the lives of thousands of people much more comfortable. But to be honest, many of those types of mechanical hands look like the very hand of Terminator. But not all. A New-York based american startup with ukrainian roots Esper Bionics develops robotic hands with a really anatomic look. This year the company won an Award Best of the Best 2022 in Product Design from Red Dot.
How can this device remember the habits of it’s user? How this startup is going to be a leader in developing prosthetic hands, and even cure some diseases? And which price will be for the Ukrainian government in order to help Ukrainian soldiers, wounded in war? We spoke to Co-founder & COO at Esper Bionics Anna Believantseva.
Anna, tell us please about your startup in a few sentences. Who is on your team, where did you start, and where do you work now?
Hi Arem, thank you for inviting me for this interview. So, about Esper Bionics. It is a human augmentation starts up, we develop technologies in the space of human augmentation. To eliminate diseases, to help people live longer, have a more fulfilled life, to prevent some illnesses and for example to improve their mobility.
Our 1st product is a bionic robotic hand, the 1st one with intuitive control. So this prosthetic hand uses behavior and can update the control algorithm.
We are a team of 23 today. We have been rapidly growing for the last half year I think. We hired more than 18 mates in Ukraine and in Ukraine and in New York. I am one of the confounders. I am the COO (chief operation officer). We have 3 co-founders. We are New York based startups. We have an office in New York. Another center is in Ukraine and part of the engineering office is in Berlin Germany.
So for now we are finishing the beta testing of our product and we will be ready for scale selling at the end of this year.
Let’s talk about your first product. It’s one of the things which made you popular among the world. What is the main idea? How does it work and how does it communicate to the user?
The main idea is to bring to the market a very convenient and very understandable product, with very simplified and faster control. ecause the main problem now for the user who uses different bionic hands it’s that it is a problem with control. That’s why we are focusing on the software and control in our prostatic hands.
If the user wants to take a cup from the table and he did it several times during the last week for example, next time, when the user will want to take the cup from the same table for example, the prosthetic hand will understand that the user’s intention is to take a cup. And the grip for the scope will be chosen in advance.
So the user will not use his muscle activation, any sensor signals – just the prosthetic hand will know the user wants to use this grip at this moment. This is the main idea to simplify the control by using data.
We analyzed the data from each of our users and we are using machine learning algorithm AI algorithm and build this control pattern and update our hand several times per month with different control algorithms to give this opportunity – have individualized device at home and to use this device at their needs.
For example, for now the main players on our market are focusing on hardware features, mainly to make this hint waterproof or very strong or something about external look. And we are focusing on software. Of course our hand is very well designed. Because we are focusing on anatomical design on anatomical look. So the prosthetic end is very similar to our natural hand.
We won Red Dot for product design this year. Here it’s the proof that our design is really great and impressive for all the world.
Where we are talking about how prosthetic devices work in general: you need to connect the prosthetic hand to the stump socket. Stump socket is a device developed in a prosthetic clinic that is very individual for each user. And inside this stump socket there are 2 or up to 8 sensors. And they are located on the skin surface inside the stump socket, and they detect muscle activation.
So when for example some people activate their muscle twice or three times, these tiny sensors detect this activation is this signal and provide this signal to the prostatic hand and the prosthetic hand chooses the grip. For example, 2 small activation of muscles means that the user wants to change the grip and the grip will be changed in some direction.
For example, long activation of muscles means that the user wants to open the grip or to close the grip. And by this way the user controls the prosthetic hand – by different activations of different muscles.
But also our hand connected to the application and the user can adjust everything in this application: different settings, different controls schemes and new grips, delete the previous one, change the order of grips training the muscle activity. We have some games to train the muscle, because you need to have strong muscles as the sensor has to detect muscle activity and you need to be able to provide some activation of muscle.
This application is like your help to set up your prosthetic hand as you want and also helps to download updates of prosthetic hand. And also you can send the data from the prosthesis to our server platform through this application.
So our main idea is that prosthetic hand consists of 3 main parts: it’s prosthetic hand, it’s application and it’s a server, where we store the user’s data and analyze it time by time. And make the control more easier and faster for each user.
Did you ask a user how it feels?
You have this feeling like it’s an artificial hand, something external from your body. But if you train about 2 or 3 weeks day-by-day you can easily change the grip, you can easily control the hand and you don’t spend this 2-3 seconds to activate each muscle, it’s like a natural process for you.
The main reason why the user wants to use the prosthetic hand is a socialization problem. It is not about functionality, it’s about socialization. They want to be confident. They don’t want to catch this look from strangers when you walk in through the street or in the metro. But they can do it with this plastic robotic hand. They can do it with some terminator-like robotic hands.
And when they, for example, are in a bus, and they want to grab some object, to hold themselves, and they want to make it easily, they want to make it very natural. And that’s why control is very-very important for them. Because they want to be confident in their hand, and that’s why we always prepare our user user. To be able to use our hand like the natural one you need to learn how to do it correctly. And you need to spend up to 3 weeks to learn how to do it and after this it will be easy for you to grab different objects to switch the different controls scheme.
Yes, you have some external device, which you wear all the time. But you feel like you can control it and it’s not like something embarrassing for you, it’s like a very great tool, which upgrades you as a human and gives you extra abilities. Even more than you and I have in our own lives.
I remember when we met in Kyiv with your volunteer, she said that people were reacting like: “Wow, you are Iron man”. So it’s really inspiring. 2 words about volunteers is it not a secret how many volunteers are involved in testing the robot hands.
For now we have 9 volunteers who are using our robotic hands. Part of them are in Ukraine and part of them are in New York where we provide our main business activities.
And they are testing it on a regular basis?
There are 2 steps of testing: the 1st step is where they come to the prosthetic clinic and test the prosthetic hand in the prosthetic clinic with clinicals. And give the expressions and feedback about the hand.
And then if they want to continue these trials, they can get the prosthetic hand with them to home and test it up to 1 month alone and give quick updates for our team and clinical experts, how the trials are going on. So the trials usually take about one month and then we decide what we should do: we can leave this hand for this user, if he or she wants to continue using the hand. Or, for example, we need to adjust some mechanical control moments and then give the hand for other trials to try these new functions.
Are you in contact with some prosthetic clinics anywhere in the world or is there some program by which the volunteers can join you?
We have partnership with 4 prosthetic clinics in the USA, Is in the New York area. It’s enough to finish the trials with 20 users, it is our goal with this beta testing. And also we communicated with several clinics in Ukraine, they were our first partners and they gave our hands to the 1st volunteers in Ukraine. And because of the war we have a lot of potential partners in Ukraine right now, who want to install the modern and very functional prosthetic hands to the Ukrainians and we want to cooperate with them in this goal.
Are there some purposes or aims to help the Ukrainian militaries with prosthetics? Maybe some programs for special prices?
We really want to help Ukrainians with our products and we can do it because unfortunately it’s a great demand for our product right now in Ukraine. And it was unexpected for us when the war started. Now we want to help and we have the opportunity to help.
The price for our hand is very high for the Ukrainian market, where we don’t have any insurance coverage and government support for now. And that’s why we decrease our price for the hand and we do not want to do business in Ukraine, we want to help. That’s why the price for our hand will be about $7000 for hand without any merge. It’s like the manufacturing cost of our hand.
We don’t want to earn money at this and this is the price we propose to prosthetic clinics with different initiatives to work with. I think compared with the price for similar devices abroad it’s about twice or several times lower than the price for different devices.
What will be the approximate price for the American market?
We don’t have this table price right now but it will be from 17 to $25000 dollars, depending on the control system if it will be included in our hand or not, complication of the mechanical test. And it will depend on how it works with the insurance companies and what are the limits to cover the prostatic device in the US market.
In one of the articles I have read that Esper Bionics is going to start making robotic legs. At what stage is this project?
We want to develop our product faster really and it’s our plan to start working with the prosthetic leg and exo-skeleton. Because of war we see the demand that we should move faster with this development.
For now we plan to hire about 3 or 4 engineers to our team, which will be developing only the prosthetic leg. But when this work will start, I can’t tell you exactly, because if we have this small engineering team faster – we can start faster. But if it takes 2 or 3 months, we can only start in 3 or more months. But we want to start and we have some basics, what we can use from prosthetic hand, and how to develop prosthetic leg. And we have this technology platform and we do not need to start from the zero, we have this technology stack. That’s why we predict that the development of our prosthetic leg will take about one year.
At the beginning of our discussion you told us about your plans on treatment from diseases. Yes I remember you told implant sensors. So what is your job in this direction?
The main goal of our company is development of the electronic sensors, which will be inside the human body and have different functions. One of them will be for example for control of is a control of different prosthetic devices too. For now we do not do any active movements in this sphere, we are preparing ourselves for this.
We started from the prostatic area. Why? Because we need to Get as much data as we can from users. And the main reason why we have started from the prosthetic area it’s because here users all the time wear big external device, which can be a data receiver, data collector, charger or any external device.
And we can get a lot of data from our users and use this data in the next stage of the development of different products. That is why the 1st step was developing the external device as a prosthetic hand, the next step is to get data from our users and then we can start developing some electronic sensors, because we will have this data with which we can work.
In conclusion my last question is: can you distinguish what mission you have for yourself, what are the main purposes you see in the future?
I think that the main reason why we have started this company is that we want to fulfill human life. We want to give the motivation, the purpose for people to live longer, to live a more intense life. And we can help them with our technologies. Before all the technologies, which were developed – are the technologies around humans: cars, space, gadgets, mobile phones, laptops. And now it’s time to develop some technologies for ourselves – for humanity. And these technologies will have a huge impact and huge influence on each person and our task is to make it faster.