He wasn’t even 20. He was self-taught in robotics, he didn’t speak Polish and he didn’t know our country or anyone living here… But he had an idea for a cheap prosthesis and its prototype. And he knew how to pass on his passion to others. He left India and came to Poznan
It’s not easy to get admitted to Vardhman Mahavir Medical College in New Delhi. The faculty is associated with Safdarjung, which is one the biggest and the best hospitals in India. However, 18-year-old Dhruv Agrawal passed his entry exam with flying colors. His parents were very proud of him. His mother and his father, both doctors, were happy to see his son follow in their footsteps. When he turned 18, they gave him a 3D printer as a birthday present. Little did they know that they were tempting fate.
Soon after Dhruv started studying at the university, he discovered that he was much more interested in learning IT and experimenting with 3D printing than in acquiring medical knowledge.
Giving up studies for Zeus
“What was I supposed to do? I was more interested in medical devices I saw in hospitals than medicine itself,” he says. “And I was particularly keen on prosthetic hands.”
He was shocked that even the best medical center in the whole country lacked good prostheses. The ones that were available cost a fortune and were out of reach for an average Indian.
“There is another aspect of that problem in a traditional society like ours. The man is usually the breadwinner. If he gets injured in an accident and is unable to fully recover and go back to work, this may have dire consequences for his whole family,” he explains. ‘And what if we created a cheap prosthesis that would help such people in their everyday life?’ I thought. I realized that I could do so much in that area,” he goes on. “Me and my friend Faith Jiwakhan met a guy who was born without a hand and didn’t have a prosthesis. We talked a lot about what he would need. We decided that we would design his prosthetic hand on our own. Since we wanted it to be light and cheap, we thought it would be a good idea to print it.
That’s how “Zeus”, the prototype of a prosthetic hand, was created in the room of the first year student studying medicine in New Delhi.
Why was it called “Zeus”?
“I have always been fascinated by Greek mythology,” explains Dhruv. “Zeus throws lightning bolts, he is associated with electricity.
Agrawal decided to drop out of the university and, together with Jiwakhan, launched a startup company. “It was a tough call,” he says. “My parents are doctors and I was to be a doctor too. But I realized I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make innovative prostheses that would be affordable to everyone.
His company was called Aether Biomedical.
Poland: a perfect starting point
“Our goal was to set a foothold in the European market as it was bigger and full of talented engineers,” says Dhruv. “We found out about “Poland Prize”, a program by Brinc Polska, which is a Poznan-based startup accelerator [Editor’s note: organized by the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development, financed by five operators]. It was a great opportunity for us to get to one of the EU countries,” he says.
In 2018 Poland Prize provided them with the amount of PLN 100,000 to establish a company in Poland.
“Back then, we didn’t think of Poland as our destination; we perceived it rather as a great starting point where from we could expand to other European markets. But when we arrived here and saw what opportunities it had to offer, how many talents and great engineers lived here and how many grants for your research projects you could get, we decided to stay here.”
I have always been fascinated by Greek mythology. Zeus throws lightning bolts and is associated with electricity, Dhruv Agrawal explains the origin of the name of his robotic hand
“We met in Brinc Polska, where I worked at that time,” says Marta Szymanowska from Aether Biomedical. “We immediately loved Dhruv’s vision. We knew his product might change the life of the disabled who couldn’t afford extremely expensive prostheses available on the market. He wasn’t even 20. He had no experience and no education. He was self-taught in engineering and robotics. He didn’t speak Polish, he didn’t know our country or anyone living here, and yet he managed to convince us to his project and to work with him. I think it’s amazing.”
“I would like to cut down the price of the prostheses currently available on the market by about 40 percent. Modern technologies, e.g. 3D printing, biosignal processing or machine learning, allow to decrease the price without compromising high quality,” assured Dhruv when he managed to convince Brinc to invest in the project.
It seems that others believed him too as things moved quickly (but we will get to that later).
How does Zeus work? It’s a multifunctional bionic prosthetic hand activated by processed biomedical signals sent by muscles. It has 14 different grip modes (12 preset and 2 customizable). Electrodes connected to the prosthesis transmit signals from nerves and muscles to algorithms which change them into movements.
“We process signals from two electrodes attached to two opposing muscles: wrist flexor and wrist extensor,” says Maciej Troszyński, the head of the electronic engineering team in Aether Biomedical. “There are three signals that are sent by muscles and received by the electrodes. They are emitted when the wrist is flexed, when the wrist is extended and when the hand clenches into a fist. When the user wants to change their grip, they must think of any of those actions and force their muscles to contract. As it takes some time to learn it, prostheses users always have to train a lot.”
Grips can be changed in two different ways. In the first mode, they are arranged in a predefined looped sequence. To change the grip, the user has to perform a cocontraction. It is impossible to go back to the previous position – to get there, you need to go through the whole sequence again. The second mode is the pairing mode in which the user can choose eight grips they find the most important which are divided into two groups with a different position of the thumb.
“Our prosthesis is also fitted with encoders, i.e. position and speed sensors,” adds Troszyński. “When the fingers feel there is resistance, the speed at which they close decreases. We can detect the change of the speed and use that information to decide whether we have taken hold of an object. However, the user has to figure out on their own how to lift a cup of tea without dropping it and how to put an egg between their fingers without damaging the shell. The force and speed of the hand are proportionate to the force the user uses to flex their muscles. The prosthesis is also fitted with a finger yielding mechanism, which makes the robotic hand more resistant to getting damaged,” he explains.
He says that many users complain about the prostheses being too fragile. They claim that after some time the fingers brake, which makes the whole hand useless.
“To solve that problem, we have developed our own yielding system allowing the fingers to become more flexible and to give way to pressure or force. The solution makes it possible to bang the hand down on the table just as we do with normal hands or to support yourself on it when easing out of a chair. Despite the force of dozens of kilograms, the prosthesis does not break,” he adds proudly.
A smart hand
The first version of Zeus was granted the CE certificate in mid-June. The first batch of devices has already been sold to Inovamed, which is one of the biggest prosthesis centers in Poland. The prostheses are also planned to be sold to other prostheses centers which, after fitting the hands with customized sockets, will resell them to individual customers.
Meanwhile, Faith Jiwakhan, who not only has a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery from Vardhman Mahavir Medical College but also holds a diploma in robotics and mechatronics from EIT, Australia, is taking care of selling Zeus on the Indian market. One of the customers includes the Indian army, which has placed an order for prostheses for veterans. The order is now on ice due to COVID-19.
The works on the second generation of Zeus prostheses began in April. The new version is going to rely on artificial intelligence algorithms. It is scheduled to be ready in spring 2021
All elements of Zeus are manufactured in Poznan; the production takes one week. The hand itself costs about 10,000 dollars. The price of the first version, including the socket, will vary from 40,000 to 70,000 zlotys, which is a real bargain comparing to other prostheses currently available on the market costing ca. 150,000 zlotys. The costs have been driven down thanks to 3D printing and modular construction. This means that if a part wears out, users will be able to replace it on their own. The hand is extremely light, which is very important for the users. It weighs only 570 grams. Its grasp force is currently the biggest on the market. 150 newtons allow to hold 35 kilograms. The prostheses can also withstand the pressure of 500 N.
The works on the second generation of the prostheses began in April. The new version is going to rely on artificial intelligence algorithms. It is scheduled to be ready in spring 2021.
“A human hand is an extremely complex mechanism,” says Maciej Troszyński. “We can control five fingers independently and bend each of them in three places. The signal that controls the whole mechanism has to be complex too. We have been trying to use a bigger number of electrodes and a machine learning system to decode the signal controlling a natural hand and to use it to control Zeus.
We’ve used pattern recognition. It consists in increasing the number of electrodes decoding the signals from the muscles and in forcing the machine learning system to recognize muscle movement patterns with the use of such data. The system will then send a signal to the prosthesis to tell it how it should position itself. In a way, it will recognize the intentions of the user and translate them into movement in a more coordinated manner. The system hasn’t been implemented in the robotic hand yet but we have been testing it on healthy users and I can say that it is now able to correctly recognize 90 percent of the intentions.”
An ecosystem for the optimists
“My biggest struggle in Poland is the language barrier,” admits Dhruv. “But as far as our startup is concerned, I see a lot of opportunities.”
After Poland Prize things moved quickly.
Shortly after, Dhruv was given a grant of one million zlotys within the Bridge Alfa project conducted by the National Center for Research and Development (NCBR). The money allowed him to open the office and the laboratory in Poznan and to employ fourteen people. One year later he received additional 3 million from the NCBR’s Fast Track grant to develop the new version of Zeus using artificial intelligence. Being one of the ten best robotic startups in w Europe, Aether Biomedical has been chosen for the Robot Union program, which has made it possible for the company to cooperate with Tecnalia, a Spanish research center. Recently, the company has seen investments from Sunfish Partners, a German and Polish venture capital fund, from Indian fund Chiratae Ventures and from Joyance Partners, which has its branch offices in California and the United Kingdom. In late May Aether Biomedical was granted over 2 million zlotys from the EU Smart Growth Operational Program, right before it had qualified to the final of the Polish edition of the prestigious Chivas Venture competition. On 8 July Dhruv and his colleagues were awarded the distinction of the Polish Tech Day in London, which translated into more meetings with investors from all over the world.
“Less than two years ago Dhruv Agrawal decided to come to Poland to construct bionic prosthetic hands,” wrote Maciej Frankowicz from Shape VC, one of the investors, on his Facebook profile. “He did that without speaking Polish, without knowing anyone in Poland, without having a regular source of income, without a diploma of a renowned university, but he was determined and believed that Poland is “the land of opportunities”, where you can and should do business in the field of innovation,” he commends the founder of the company.
His comment ends with optimistic words: “It’s a great feeling to know that we, as an ecosystem, are able to lure talented people from all over the world and to convince them to stay in Poland.” It shows “that we can really do it and that we are sometimes capable of things we do not fully realize and that it’s worth building an ecosystem and a society that is open, tolerant and, above all else, focused on collaboration”.
We, too, keep our fingers crossed!
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