Innovative medical technology for aging population

The research team for the ARMM project at the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre: Allan Spence, PhD, Researcher and Industry Liaison; Yodha Singh, Mechanical Engineering Technology student and Research Assistant; Dave McKechnie, Research Laboratory Technologist; Daniel Bordenave, Bisep CEO and founder; and Avery Edge, Mechanical Engineering Technology student and Research Assistant.

Niagara College’s engineering research team has helped a local company get its innovative medical technology to market and start helping an aging population regain their freedom of movement.

Bisep Inc., a Niagara Falls-based innovation start-up, is the brainchild of CEO and founder Daniel Bordenave. His invention – a device that connects a patient’s wheelchair to their walker, enabling unaided movement – solves the common issue of understaffing in long-term care.

It was a challenge he personally experienced while working as a kinesiologist in a long-term care facility. The standard practice is for two or more health-care practitioners to help one patient with mobility training – one or two helping the individual walk, while another walks behind with the wheelchair at a consistent pace, in case of any fatigue or falls. However, says Bordenave, there’s typically only funding available for a second therapist twice a week, greatly reducing the time spent with patients.

“These patients weren’t walking on a daily basis and I couldn’t keep up due to safety concerns and regulations,” he explains. “These folks were spending more sedentary time in their beds, in their wheelchairs and not improving, or causing further muscle loss because they were just not walking.”

His device, named the ARMM (Ambulation, Retraining, Mobility, and Mechanism) acts as a security bridge so the patient can walk unassisted with their walker while the wheelchair trails safely behind them. And Bordenave is crediting the student and staff expertise at the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) for help bringing it to fruition.

 “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without the help of Niagara College’s Research & Innovation department,” says Bordenave. “If it weren’t for them, I probably would not have the company now or would not have done anything. Having access to funding and the research expertise was beyond amazing.”

In coming up with the concept: “I thought, let me see how I can help myself in my practice… so what I did was think, let’s try attaching the wheelchair to the walker.” After formulating his idea, Bordenave enlisted the tool and die talents of his grandfather to help fabricate a proof-of-concept prototype in their garage.

From there, he sought the help of the engineering team at WAMIC. “We were limited in the machinery that we had and the brain capacity… we are not engineers,” says Bordenave. “What attracted me to Niagara College was the ability to access the amazing innovation department, a national-leading group of engineers, and essentially create a quality product that would be functional, user-friendly, and safe.”

Getting to the final prototype took two projects, executed by the R&I engineering team at the College – with funding by both the Niagara Region and the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI).

The research team first leveraged its mechanical design software and rapid prototyping technologies to create an initial prototype that would be ready for real-world testing, while Bisep put it into use in a medical research environment.

With the prototype in hand, Bordenave conducted successful clinical trials through a collaborative research project with the Niagara Region and Brock University. He also brought the ARMM to hospitals and long-term care facilities for focus group meetings with more than 100 therapists with the goal of improving full utilization of the device.

Bisep returned to the College for essential design modifications, mainly in further designs to produce a product that was both universal to most wheelchairs and walkers, and also adjustable in order to accommodate varying heights of patients. The team replaced all the welded parts with 3D printed components to increase the degree of variability in adjusting the device.

“So we were able to make the device expand wider, expand taller and also expand on the angle from the arm of the wheelchair to the handles of the walker – the incline from when the person is transferring himself from the chair to the walker,” explains Bordenave.

Another major modification to the design was something Bordenave calls the “exercise mode,” a function that could be used by patients to strengthen muscles involved in standing from a seated position, an ability that is critical for mobility and fall prevention. The aim is to prevent any further atrophy in the lower muscles, and increase the patient’s neuromuscular capabilities.

“We wanted to make the device more versatile so it allows the patient to disconnect their walker by dropping down the two legs on the device,” he adds. “This then allows them to practice their exercises from their own chair, unassisted, and also grab on the ARMM correctly and stand themselves up.”

Avery Edge, a Mechanical Engineering Technology student at Niagara College, worked as part of the team on this second phase of the project, as a Research Assistant with WAMIC.

“I have learned a lot about material strengths and properties and how they affect the strength and performance of a device,” says Edge. “Being able to work with all technologies on this project also made it so enjoyable… going from computer CAD software to 3D printing to manual metal working for prototypes allowed me to experience what it takes all around to make a great device.”

Yodha Singh, Mechanical Engineering Technology student and former Research Assistant at the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, demonstrates Bisep’s ARMM device in action.

This past summer, Bisep placed first in a competition for start-up companies whose innovation in technologies or services can benefit older adults and caregivers.

In its National Impact Challenge: Startup Edition, AGE-WELL (Aging Gracefully across Environments using Technology to Support Wellness, Engagement and Long Life NCE Inc.) held three regional events in the country and five finalists pitched their technology-based solution at each event. Bordenave was crowned the winner for Ontario and received $15,000 in cash, plus in-kind prizes.

Bisep was also selected to work with XLerate Health, the largest health-care accelerator in the United States, to help them tap into the U.S. market, doing demonstrations at various health-care facilities.

With a dozen or so pre-orders, full-scale commercialization will roll-out at the beginning of the new year with the manufacturing of 1,000 units. All production will take place at the Spark Niagara small manufacturing facility in Niagara Falls, where Bisep currently operates.

“I’m proud to say all manufacturing and any future production that we do will always be in the Niagara region to help create jobs and help support the economy,” vows Bordenave.

As an innovation company, Bisep is also busy coming up with new solutions based on problems Bordenave has experienced during his time as a practising kinesiologist. Research underway that will help target the aging population include collecting data on falls and the way falls happen within the senior population.

“We can then read into that data and try to minimize any future falls that happen in the same way.”

Bordenave remains grateful to the expert solutions he received from the College’s Innovation Centre. “Everybody who I worked with was amazing and very intelligent. They worked very hard and the communication was perfect.”