Psyonic Racks of Accolades as its Bionic Hand Prepares for a Nationwide Launch
An Illinois startup that has developed a more affordable bionic hand has been racking up accolades as it prepares for the nationwide rollout of its high-tech prosthetic.
Aadeel Akhtar, founder and CEO of Psyonic, based in Champaign, this week received an Innovation Award from the Illinois Innovation Network, a consortium of public universities and community colleges working to improve the state’s economy by nurturing innovation. His award, in the health and wellness category, was presented Wednesday at the Illinois State Fair’s Tech Prairie STEAM Expo, which recognized seven individuals from the network’s 15 hubs who have made key advances in research, technology commercialization and education.
Psyonic, which is based at the EnterpriseWorks Incubator in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Research Park, this summer participated in the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program, where Akhtar sought help devising a social media strategy for the nationwide launch of its first product, the Ability Hand, set for Sept. 1.
The Ability Hand is the fastest bionic hand on the market and the first with sensors in the fingertips that offer multi-touch feedback, according to the company. Light and durable, it is made with inexpensive silicones and rubbers that help lower the price to the point that it is covered by Medicare.
There are about 100,000 people in the U.S., and 10 million people globally, who are missing a hand and could take advantage of the Ability Hand, Akhtar said.
“The goal is to get these hands to people who need them worldwide,” said Akhtar, 34, who this summer was named to MIT Technology Review’s global list of 35 Innovators Under 35. “It is the most accessible advanced bionic hand that is out there.”
Polsky’s Small Business Growth Program typically offers support to small business owners on Chicago’s South and West, pairing them with a team of University of Chicago students and a coach to tackle a business challenge. But when the program expanded last year it partnered with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion to recruit businesses and student consultants for some of the cohorts.
Psyonic sought help with marketing as it approached its national launch, especially with social media strategy in hopes of creating viral content.
“There are particular things our hand can do that are unique,” Akhtar said. “We want it to handle arm wrestling, break through boards, and we want those things to go viral.”
The biotech startup was the most unique client in the summer cohort, which was mostly comprised of restaurants, retail stores and other established small businesses, said Vik Sharma, who led the team of student consultants on the Psyonic’s project.
The team presented Psyonic with a digital marketing plan for each of the social media apps and other recommendations, such as raising awareness via TikTok and becoming a community for users.
“I loved the experience,” said Sharma, who is pursuing his master’s degree in finance at UIUC and enjoyed learning about marketing and strategy consulting. “I will be taking these lessons and applying them forward.”
Akhtar, who grew up in the Chicago suburb Streamwood, traces his interest in prosthetics to a visit to his parents’ native Pakistan when he was 7 years old. He recalls encountering an impoverished girl around his age who was missing her right leg and using a tree branch as a crutch.
Akhtar was researching prosthetics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he was pursuing his master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering and his PhD in neuroscience, when he met a retired U.S. Army sergeant, Garrett Anderson, who had lost a hand to a roadside bomb in Iraq and used a hook in its place.
Together they started developing the Ability Hand, using Akhtar’s research into sensorimotor prosthetic control to stimulate the nerves so users can feel what their prosthetics are touching.
“When Sgt. Anderson holds his daughter’s hand, he can feel it,” Akhtar said.
Another trip, this time to Ecuador, made Akhtar realize the importance of getting the prosthetic to market and making it available to the masses.
Working with a nonprofit that provides high-quality prosthetics to underserved populations, Akhtar met a former soldier in Ecuador who had lost his hand years before to machine gun fire. The team outfitted the man with a clunky hand, three times larger than a human hand, and retrained his brain to do basic tasks like pinch. The man, joyous, “felt as though he had come back,” Akhtar said.
“If we just stay in academia this just ends up in a journal paper,” Akhtar recalled thinking.
In 2014, Akhtar took Psyonic through the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, where it learned customer discovery and business models. The following year Psyonic won the University of Illinois’ Cozad New Venture Challenge, and in 2016 it won the university’s $20,000 Illinois Innovation Award. The same year, Akhtar was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Healthcare.
Major funding came in 2018 and 2019, when Psyonic received Small Business Innovation Research grants from the National Science Foundation.
Meanwhile, they improved upon the Ability Hand.
Initially made with a 3D printer, the bionic hand was made with hard injection molded plastics that would break from the occasional bump. In order to keep the cost down but improve durability, Psyonic decided to 3D print the molds but use low-cost rubbers and silicons to create the fingers and joints.