Pierluigi Mantovani's father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than a decade ago, and like many people with MS, he developed a condition called "foot drop."
People with foot drop have difficulty lifting their feet or keeping their toes upward while walking. That causes them to involuntarily drag their toes, which can increase their risk of tripping or falling.
Inspired by his father, Mantovani used his background in neuroscience to develop EvoWalk, a wearable device that combats foot drop by delivering electrical stimulation to the muscles in the leg — and while it's not the first device of its kind, it may be the smartest and most affordable.
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Treating Foot Drop with Electrical Stimulation
While foot drop is common with MS, it can also be caused by strokes, pinched nerves, or ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).
Depending on the cause, foot drop can be permanent or temporary, and traditional treatments for the condition include surgery, leg braces, and physical therapy.
Electrical stimulation devices are another option. These devices are typically worn around a person's calf, and they send electrical pulses to the leg muscles. Those pulses cause the muscles to contract in a way that lifts the foot toward the knee when the person is taking a step forward.
Several electrical stimulation devices are already on the market, but those devices cost more than $5,000 and usually aren't covered by insurance.
EvoWalk is designed to be a smarter and more affordable alternative.
The EvoWalk System
In 2017, Mantovani and his partners at the Berkeley-based startup Evolution Devices developed their first prototype of the EvoWalk.
Like other electrical stimulation devices, EvoWalk wraps around a person's leg, delivering electrical impulses that help combat their foot drop.
But EvoWalk is paired with sensors and AI software that makes the timing of these pulses more precise, as well as recording real-time data on the wearer's gait, which can help them get the most out of physical therapy.
"Data is a big part of the value we add, not just for the physical therapists, but also for the patients," Mantovani told the Robot Report in November.
Just prior to the pandemic, Evolution Devices conducted three, eight-week-long pilots of the latest version of the device. Preliminary data from those pilots suggests that the system can increase walking speed by 20% and help a person take up to 10 times more steps per day.
In February, the startup plans to launch a virtual pilot program of the device, connecting people with foot drop with certified neurologic physical therapists.
"Part of the reason why we're creating our own clinic is to get things into the hands of patients easier and keep the price tag as low as we can," Mantovani said.
Virtual Pilot Program
If they're found to be a good fit for the pilot, Evolution Devices will send the person one of the wearables and give them access to its companion app. The person will then wear the device so it can record data on their current gait and compare it to a "healthy" gait.
"We spent a substantial amount of time on and have a team just for metrics," Evolution Device's CTO Juan M. Rodriguez told the Robot Report.
"We looked at a healthy person's walking style, knee flection, and measures of balance walking throughout the day," he continued. "No others can do this as accurately as with EvoWalk, and we validate with motion capture."
The system shares a patient's gait data with their therapist, who then works with the patient to develop a therapy program, setting walking goals and using the data from EvoWalk to keep tabs on progress.
No word yet on what the company expects the final cost of the system to be, but people with foot drop might not have to wait long to find out — the company says it expects to receive FDA clearance for the EvoWalk in 2021.
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