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Myomo, selling robotic devices to assist with stroke rehab, is engineering its own recovery

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 28, 2012 11:15 AM

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Paul Gudonis seems to be engineering a miraculous recovery at Myomo, a Cambridge medical device company that seemed to be on death's doorstep in 2009, when it laid off all but four employees.

The company make software and wearable robotic braces that help people who have suffered from strokes to recover the normal use of their arms. In 2004, it was the winner of MIT's high-profile business plan competition, and in 2007 it won a "best of what's new" award from Popular Science. But the company struggled to raise the money it needed to perfect the brace and win FDA approval, and like many fledgling device makers, it started off with an expensive product — $45,000 — that could only be used in a rehab clinic by specially-trained therapists.

Conceptually, the device is simple. "In over 85 percent of the patients we've screened, after the damage to the brain cells from the stroke, there is still a trace of signal in the muscle when someone is trying to move their arm," says Gudonis. A sensor on the Myomo mPower device tunes into those signals in the bicep and tricep muscles, and "we translate it into motion with the robotics. It's kind of like having power steering for your arm." While wearing the Myomo device, patients practice typical activities like picking up a cup or opening a door. After several years of using the device for rehab, some patients have "graduated out" of using the device, as their brain has created new neuronal pathways to replace those that were damaged in the stroke, Gudonis says.

myomo2.jpgMyomo won FDA approval for patients to use the device at home in 2010. (That version of the device costs $7500.)

Gudonis was first an investor in the company, and then joined as chief executive last July. He'd previously been CEO of Centra Software and Genuity, a spin-out from BBN. He has been helping Myomo build a national sales force, and also raise its next round of funding of about $2 million. Without confirming the amount, Gudonis says, "Like other growth companies, we'll continue to look for growth capital." Also key to the company's success will be getting private insurers and Medicare to cover the cost of the mPower device. Those conversations are happening now, Gudonis says.

About 800,000 people suffer strokes in the U.S. each year. Gudonis says that as many as 500,000 of those may be able to benefit from the Myomo device.

The company now has 22 employees, up from four just a year ago. Last March, it received a $750,000 "accelerator loan" from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. A $200,000 National Science Foundation grant will enable Myomo, along with researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University, to develop "virtual coaching" software for a tablet computer. "The idea would be that you'd have an avatar who can coach you at home through the exercises you need to do each day," Gudonis says. "We also have some videogames in development that would keep people engaged with the device over time."

Late last month, Myomo received a visit from former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci. Cellucci revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Gudonis wouldn't comment on Cellucci's visit because of patient privacy regulations, but he did acknowledge that "we've started to work with a few ALS patients, helping them lift their arms so they can feed themselves." The Myomo device is already approved for use with patients who've suffered stroke or traumatic brain injury, as well as those who have cerebral palsy. In addition to ALS, Gudonis says the technology may also prove useful to people diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

In addition to the current device, which only works on the elbow joint, the company may eventually develop other wearable robotic devices for other parts of the body, like the hand and leg, Gudonis says.

Here's some video from a Los Angeles newscast showing an early user of the Myomo device:

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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