Knee brace design puts a spring in your step
Spring Loaded Technology co-founders Chris Cowper-Smith and Bob Garrish can literally put the spring back in anyone’s step.
Helping them do this is the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), who has announced that the turning point project Bionic Boost, submitted by Cowper-Smith and Garrish, is the winner of the 2015 BDC Young Entrepreneur Award contest worth $100,000.
The company originated when Cowper-Smith and Garrish met at Dalhousie University’s Starting Lean Initiative entrepreneur course while in the Neuroscience and Mechanical Engineering programs, respectively. Their BDC turning point project will accelerate their Halifax, NS-based company’s capacity to bring to market the bionic knee‑brace technology.
The compact and lightweight product stores the users’ own kinetic energy and releases it when it’s most needed to enhance strength, reduce fatigue, and increase stability. The brace has wide market appeal as it can be used by everyone from athletes such as skiers looking to enhance performance, laborers and military personnel, to people with various forms of movement disability.
Dr. Mary Kilfoil, Academic Lead for the Starting Lean Initiative at Dalhousie, said that Cowper-Smith and Garish were in the first course there in the fall of 2012. This course “moved beyond the typical university lectures and brought Silicon Vally-style entrepreneurialism into the classroom.”
The course exposed the two to real-world business start-up challenges. A mentor is assigned to each project team in the course. “The mentors can introduce the team to other people in business by opening up their Rolodex,” said Kilfoild, but “they can’t solve team problems or offer direct advice.”
This entrepreneurial training that the Spring Loaded co-founder experienced has served them well with investors and played a part in succeeding in the BDC competition.
“It feels great to win the $100,000 grand prize and it will certainly help us execute on our launch plan,” said Cowper-Smith, CEO.
“As a pre‑revenue company about to come to market, the publicity we received just from taking part in the BDC Young Entrepreneur Award contest has been amazing.
“Over a thousand people from across Canada and beyond reached out to us. We doubled the size of our lead list during the contest – this is a fantastic validation of what we’re doing.”
He has specific plans for the cash award. “We’ll use the $100,000 grand prize for new rapid carbon‑fibre and composites manufacturing equipment to boost production and cut our costs so we can bring an affordable and accessible bionic knee brace to market this fall.
“Thanks to the support of Canadians from across the country, we will be able to make a difference in the lives of people around the world.”
Cowper-Smith likens the key technology in the knee brace – a patented hinge mechanism – to that found in the landing gear of aircraft, except “with miniaturized high-pressure hydraulics.”
Garrish, the company’s CTO, said that the spring consists of individual cylinders which are the same diameter of AA batteries but 1-1/2 times longer. “There is 1-1/4 in. of travel that cushions 500 lb of force over the entire assembly.”
This takes a load off of the knee that is subjected to the around “700 lb of force shoving the knee bone together. These are orthotic devices, not prosthetics,” said Garrish.
“During the design phase, we’ve aggressively minimized the number of fasteners and parts.”
This has simplified assembly and taken weight out of the product.
Spring Loaded Technology has an extensive machine shop to make parts and molds. The company has a couple of CNC milling machines, one of which was an older router modified with a couple of linear motors on a 4 x 4 ft table that now can provide positioning accuracy to ¼ micron.
A bladder molding system is used to make its carbon fibre knee brace arms. Prepreg carbon fibre infused with an epoxy has a bladder tube inserted, is fitted into a mold and inflated. The mold is then heated to a temperature that activates the epoxy and hardens the carbon fibre after a couple of hours. Removed from the mold, the knee brace arms and parts are then assembled before the hinge mechanism is added.
This design engineering ingenuity, combined with a sound business plan and market investigation, shows that new manufacturing can be generated in Canada, believes Cowper-Smith.
Michel Bergeron, senior vice president, Marketing and Public Affairs at BDC, agrees. “(Spring Loaded Technology) is a compelling example of how Canadian entrepreneurs can create world‑class and exportable products in the healthcare space and improve quality of life for an ageing population.”