This Stealth Startup Is Using Electrical Stimulation to Help People Walk Again

This Stealth Startup Is Using Electrical Stimulation to Help People Walk Again
Photo: Evolution Devices, In-House Art

Some 33 million people in the U.S., or 1 in 7 Americans, have disabilities related to mobility, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Considered something of a silent health epidemic, the degree to which older and middle-aged Americans struggle with difficulties walking or climbing is immense.

However, a relatively new therapeutic technique, known as functional electrical stimulation, uses electrical pulses to artificially stimulate muscles and has shown some promise in increasing activity in people with impairments, such as neurological damage or multiple sclerosis.

Photo: Evolution Devices, In-House Art Photo: Evolution Devices, In-House Art

California startup Evolution Devices, Inc, based in Berkeley, has sought to leverage this therapeutic technique and harness it into a wearable, easy-to-use device. The company, founded in 2017, has spent the last three years developing the EvoWalk, a “non-intrusive sleeve” that is fitted around a person’s leg and uses tiny sensors to analyse their walking patterns (or “gait”). The sleeve subsequently utilises machine learning and AI to create a customised personalised stimulation algorithm, a pattern of electrical stimulations, calibrated to stimulate their muscles and help them walk better.

“Through surface electrodes, the EvoWalk device sends an electrical impulse to contract the lower-leg muscle during the walking ‘swing phase,’ lifting the foot and allowing the patient to clear the ground and walk with greater stability and confidence, helping prevent falls,” the device’s creator, CEO of Evolution Devices Pierlugi Mantovani, said. “The EvoWalk uses patented machine learning algorithms to provide precise stimulation timing and report real-time detailed walking metrics to physical therapists, improving remote care.”

Evolution Devices has also been supercharged by some major funding — with approximately $US1 ($1) million coming in from various sources, including significant grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institution of Health, and the Toyota Mobility Foundation.

The EvoWalk is specifically designed to combat a disorder known as “foot drop,” a general term for difficulty walking caused by paralysis or weakness of muscles in the front part of the foot. Mantovani said he was inspired to create the device after his own father began to struggle with similar symptoms after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis years ago. In 2017, Mantovani and his partners created the sleeve’s first prototype and have been building on it ever since.

“This first prototype successfully helped my dad walk better, and we knew that with improvements we could help significantly more people with neurological walking impairments as the best place to start,” said Mantovani. “Over the past three years, we have been innovating to achieve our vision to use our technology as a platform to assist and enhance all types of muscle movements.”

All that hard work may be paying off soon. The EvoWalk’s beta device is scheduled to be completed later this month. The company plans to launch a virtual clinic in February and hopes to have clearance from the Food and Drug Administration by the 2nd quarter of this year.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.