Entrepreneur uses know-how to help improve people’s lives
Wed Jul 1 2015
Byline: Katie Smith
A young entrepreneur from Miramichi is designing a bionic knee brace that could change the way people with an injury or permanent disability get around.
Bob Garrish and his business partner, Chris Cowper-Smith, co-founders of Spring Loaded Technology in Halifax, are working on making the world’s first knee brace that has an exoskeleton-level powered hinge built into it, which will store the user’s own kinetic energy and release it when it’s most needed.
The project has already received some noteworthy attention. Garrish, 33, and Cowper-Smith, 31, received the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) 2015 Young Entrepreneur Award on June 22 for the turning point project, Bionic Boost, winning the grand prize of $100,000.
The brace, similar to a carbon-fibre knee brace someone receives after receiving a knee injury, has a carbon-fibre frame that straps to the user’s leg and bends and straightens with the user’s knee, Garrish said in an interview with the Miramichi Leader.
Bob Garrish models the bionic knee brace he helped create and develop. Photo: Submitted
“But the difference is that if you were to crouch, our brace would actually help you get back up, or if you go down a staircase it would support your weight,” he said. “It’s actually tuned to the user’s weight. It’s extremely strong.”
The mechanism is strong enough that a 250-pound person wearing one could have one non-working quadricep and still be able to crouch down, tie their shoes and stand back up.
It is entirely mechanical, so there are no batteries or power sources required for the brace to operate, and it’s lightweight and small enough to be worn under clothing, said Garrish, who is a graduate of James M. Hill Memorial High School and the son of Barry and Ginette Garrish of Napan.
“The strapping it on was one of the trickiest parts of development because to lift you back up, this essentially has to put your entire body weight on the back of your leg,” he said. “So figuring out how to do that in a way that didn’t hurt the user and that it was still comfortable was huge.”
Garrish and Cowper-Smith met in a course at Dalhousie University in Halifax aimed at teaching people how to make startup companies, a course which included students from all different backgrounds and areas of study.
During the course, they were partnered up with another student, a hockey player, who wanted a powered knee brace because he thought it could make him skate faster.
“And so that’s how it got started. We started looking into it and there’s like 110 years of people trying to patent the same thing and trying to do it different ways and it never worked. I thought, ‘Oh sure, I can fix that,’?” he said, laughing.
Garrish said the thing he and his business partner are most excited about is how this device is going to change people’s lives.
“Recovery is one area where it certainly can help, but the one we’re really excited about is people with a permanent quadricep weakness from injury or other disease, or people who have neurological disorders that cause loss of muscle control, like multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy.”
For many of those people, who have lost the ability to crouch down, their world starts at their waist, Garrish said.
“You can’t even bend down and tie your shoes. If you can’t tie your shoes, you can’t go to the grocery store, you can’t leave the house without anyone else’s help. You instantly lose the outside world and need a caretaker for something as simple as losing the ability to crouch and stand back up.”
Garrish, who underwent knee surgery himself six months into starting the company, said he learned a lot during his recovery.
“As soon as you have one of those injuries, you learn stuff that’s really not obvious,” he said, adding going down the stairs with a knee injury is “terrifying.”
“If someone has a knee that can fail, one, this can support their weight, but two, if they have a knee that’s unstable, this will also catch them when they start to fall.”
Thanks to the BDC Award, Spring Loaded Technology will be able to go to market this fall with the brace, something Garrish said wouldn’t have happened until at least early 2016 without the funding.
The money will be used for new rapid carbon-fibre and composites manufacturing equipment to boost production and keep costs down, so the brace will be affordable and accessible to users.
Nearly all of the parts are made in the Halifax facility, Garrish said.
A lot of this stuff, we actually designed the manufacturing process and built the machines we used to make the parts,” he said. “We’re not only doing it here, but we’re doing it at a cost where we can still make money and hit the price point we want to so that people can afford this.”
Affordability has got to be part of it, Garrish said.
“Initially, we’ll probably be doing a crowd-funding campaign like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, just because we’ve had so many individual users contact us,” he said. “We’re confident we can sell directly to consumers to start without going through distributors and that lets us control the price point.”
Garrish said the cost they are aiming for will be more expensive than an off-the-shelf knee brace, but cheaper than buying a custom knee brace.
“We’re essentially selling you an automobile for less than the price of a new bicycle,” he said. “We have to make a nice knee brace to put this on, so we’re effectively selling you a nice knee brace that happens to make you twice as strong for less than the price of a nice knee brace.”
In the end, Garrish said he isn’t in it for the money.
“I could be making a whole lot of more money designing weapons. Man, I could design a great missile,” he said, laughing. “This will pay off, but the business you choose, we’re definitely in this one because we think it’s something that really matters.”