If you want to get Dean Kamen engaged in a project, the best way is to dangle a seemingly impossible goal.
When Kamen, one of America's best-known inventors, first spoke with officers at the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, they told him they were looking for a research and development group that could build a prototype of a new prosthetic arm. Kamen was expecting to hear a list of technical specifications, such as how much the arm would need to lift and how many moving joints it would require. Instead, Kamen says, the Pentagon officials told him they wanted to create an arm that could "pick up a raisin or a grape from a table, know the difference without looking at it, and be able to manipulate it into the person's mouth without breaking it or dropping it."
"Wow," Kamen thought, "that is pretty much beyond the capability of current engineering."
Several hundred US soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan missing an arm, and several dozen have lost both arms, according to Kamen. The numbers are tragic - yet too small to motivate some of the largest makers of medical devices. But Kamen says, "You don't say no to DARPA, and you don't say no to a challenge that can be that much of a life-changer for people who need it."
Kamen's company, DEKA Research & Development Corp. of Manchester, N.H., won an $18.1 million contract from the Pentagon to build the best possible prosthetic arm - from shoulder to fingertips - in two years. The deadline is mid-January.
The arm I saw late last month is DEKA's first-generation prototype. It weighs nine pounds (less than a human arm), and the first thing I wanted to do when I saw it demonstrated was to shake its hand. Operating the arm was Dirk Van Der Merwe, a DEKA engineer who has all of his original equipment but who was wearing a special glove and arm brace that let him control the prosthetic arm while standing next to it.
Without any covering to emulate human skin - what those in the prosthetics field call a "cosmesis" - the arm is distinctly robotic, all metal cylinders and dark gray carbon fiber. I held out my index finger, and Van Der Merwe manipulated the arm so that the index finger and thumb grabbed my fingertip and squeezed lightly. Suddenly, there was a buzzing sound. "That's a sensor in the fingers letting me know how hard I'm squeezing," Van Der Merwe explained. A few minutes later, when I shook hands, the grip was firm (if not warm), and Van Der Merwe chided me for not shaking more vigorously. I didn't want to break the hand and get on the Pentagon's bad side.
Van Der Merwe showed how the arm can wave hello, sweep laterally like a realtor showing off a living room, and do a bicep curl. (It can lift 20 pounds.) As he went through the motions, Randy Campbell, who is missing his right arm just below the shoulder, approached. He'll be testing the prosthetic for DEKA, and Campbell, who lives near Moosehead Lake, Maine, is hoping the new arm might improve the outcome of his frequent fishing expeditions. Recently, DEKA signed up the first Iraq War veteran who will test the arm, a 27-year-old who lost both arms below the elbow.
DEKA isn't the only local group trying to push prosthetics forward. Liberating Technologies Inc., an artificial-arms maker in Holliston, is collaborating with InnerSea Technology Inc. of Bedford to develop electrodes that could be implanted inside the body but powered by an external battery.
The electrodes could help relay a clearer signal from muscles to prosthetic devices; the work is being funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Liberating has also joined with Foster-Miller Inc., a Waltham robotics company, to develop an advanced prosthetic leg that would "respond to commands from the body, rather than react to feedback from the ground," said Bill Hanson, president of Liberating Technologies.
Liberating has also been advising DEKA on its work and could wind up being the company that makes the new arms. "Our technology now," which costs anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000, "is five years old, and five years is a long time in the technology world. It's time to move ahead," Hanson said. He estimates that the arm being designed by DEKA would cost several times as much as a current model.
"DARPA is trying to provide the best technology they can for wounded military personnel," Hanson said, "and that's a wonderful thing to do. But to see this technology trickle down to the civilian population as well, you have to produce it at a price that Medicare, worker's comp, and third-party payers will pay for."
Breakthrough technology, unfortunately, rarely comes cheap. One of DEKA's earlier innovations was the Independence iBOT, an all-terrain wheelchair that can climb stairs. It is sold by a division of Johnson & Johnson for about $25,000. A spin-off product, the self-balancing Segway Personal Transporter, costs about $5,000.
By the end of this month, DEKA is hoping have its second-generation arm finished, shaving a few pounds off the original and slightly shrinking the elbow and hand. For users who choose to wear a skin-like cosmesis, rather than go for the Terminator look, DEKA wants to better integrate the cosmesis with the technology it will conceal, so that the arm's functionality won't be limited. And if DEKA lands a follow-on grant from DARPA, that would allow the company to continue developing the arm and transforming it from an impressive prototype into a real product.
Kamen hopes the market for the product won't get too big. But he's gratified to see the arms being used by patients, and he brags like a proud parent about what they can do with them. For example, one patient shows off by picking up individual M&Ms, and another can use a power drill. "We've given them a new perspective on life," Kamen said.
Innovation Economy is a weekly column that focuses on entrepreneurship, technology, and venture capital in New England. Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com.