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Academia in Action: Getting tech into people’s hands

When Jacob George attended a summer internship program at the University of Utah in 2015, he met an individual who was experiencing limb loss and had an amputation who told him, “Losing a limb is like losing a family member, except you’re reminded of it every day.”

For George that idea hit close to home as he had lost both his father and brother. “I had lost family members. But I never really had experienced the lack of autonomy and chronic pain and disability that comes with losing a limb as well.”

George now combines his interests in engineering and medicine as a U professor in the electrical & computer engineering and physical medicine & rehabilitation departments as well as directing the Utah NeuroRobotics Lab.

Much of George’s work sounds like stuff straight out of a science fiction novel: prosthetic hands that can bring back a user’s sense of touch, exoskeletons that restore movement, wristband devices that can turn the lights off by thought, and more. This technology has become reality in his lab.

The impacts of these technologies are vast. For example, technology like the Luke Arm—a prosthetic, robotic hand that an amputee can move using their thoughts and also restores their sense of touch—provides more benefits than a regular prosthesis.

It “allows an individual who's lost a hand to have direct impacts on their well-being and improving their dexterity, but also bringing psychological benefits associated with like the sense of touch that we can restore, which allows an individual to hold hands with a loved one again and get that sense of feeling back,” George said.

But how does this technology work?

With both the Luke Arm and George’s work with exoskeletons that help stroke and spinal cord injury patients move limbs again, the underlying technologies are similar. “It's the same concept of trying to use a brain computer interface. A person thinks about an action, and we figure out what they're thinking and translate that into actual movement, whether it's invoked by a physical prosthetic that exists or whether it's evoked by an exoskeleton.”

The process works similarly but in reverse to restore that sense of touch. “When a person makes contact with objects, we can figure out what forces they’re interacting with, whether it's from a bionic arm or from their own arm. And then we can translate those into stimulation that goes back up to the brain,” George said.

George and his lab are now working to expand this technology into the broader field of human computer interaction, assistive technology and even virtual reality. Imagine using a VR headset and instead of just seeing the objects and using a handheld device to interact with the virtual space, you could actually feel and touch things.

Getting tech into people’s hands

These technologies have resulted from both successful interdisciplinary research and academic-corporate partnerships.

George said one of the perks of being at the U and in the state of Utah is the spirit of collaboration. He has worked with researchers from the University of Utah hospital, the engineering department and more. “People want to collaborate and make cool things happen. That’s really where our strength comes from.”

Add that collaboration to Utah’s entrepreneurial spirit and you can see why the state consistently ranks as one of the top states to start a business. “At the U, we can patent technology, get it out there, and then create startups really easily in this environment,” George said.

For George, his commercialization journey started by clicking the “Disclose your innovation” button on the PIVOT website. From there he has been able to tap into PIVOT’s resources and connections to partner with groups beyond campus, resulting in sponsored research agreements and funding for George’s lab.

George is actively working with a company that is interested in integrating his lab’s wristband device with smart home technology. After receiving PIVOT Ascender Grant funding to produce a prototype, the company began supporting his lab’s ongoing research by providing letters of support and donating equipment.

"There’s so much money that exists out there from sponsored research agreements and industry that people don’t realize and don’t tap into as much. PIVOT can help them find those opportunities and connect them to the right people."

That’s only one of many companies and organizations that PIVOT and George are working with to further his research, and this kind of assistance is available to all U researchers with innovations and ideas that could provide real impact. Since starting at the U a few years, George and PIVOT have been able to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars for his budding lab.

“I think the barrier to entry is actually lower than most people would think,” George said. “It can be a good relationship that all really needs to happen is just invest a little bit of time.”

George advised his colleagues to start working with PIVOT early so the office can advise them on how to structure research to target specific funding agencies. “There’s so much money that exists out there from sponsored research agreements and industry that people don’t realize and don’t tap into as much,” George said. “PIVOT can help them find those opportunities and connect them to the right people.”

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