Halifax company developing next generation of prosthetics
A lack of innovation in prosthetics in recent decades means opportunity for Halifax start-up Awenza Health Inc. Founded two years ago, the company is working to disrupt the prosthetics market and provide better solutions for patients through new technologies.
Many current products on the market, says CEO Sam Awara, cause high levels of discomfort and even pain in some situations. So Awenza is building a suite of products to solve these issues for those with limb differences.
“We feel that a lot of these kinds of devices have been stuck in limbo over the last 20 to 30 years,” says Awara. Through mechanical, electrical, and algorithmic innovations, “there’s a lot of improvements that we feel we can bring into the market and have that competitive edge.”
Ultimately, the main focus for Awenza is to be patient centric. And current patients have an urgent need for innovation, he says.
“Some of these traditional prosthetics could be upwards of US$100,000. And if people are not using it or using it maybe for a couple of days or a couple of weeks, and then putting it in their cupboard because they feel it’s better to not have it, that’s something that we want to solve. We want to build a product that patients really use…We want to be as close as possible to replicating what really exists in nature and give patients that high level of functionality and usability to make them enjoy using it.”
Focus on comfort and functionality
The company’s innovations include a device that goes between the residual limb of an amputee and the prosthesis to measure the patient’s comfort levels. It can connect to most prosthetic devices on the market today to provide the wearer with insightful and relevant data such as pressure points, wear time per day, and feedback on movement efficiency.
It’s this kind of focus on comfort and functionality that sets Awenza apart from competitors, says Awara. “The technology exists but has not yet been deployed in this way…to provide better functionality, better comfort, and better monitoring.”
Perhaps the company’s most notable innovation to date is a modular and adjustable prosthetic socket. Still in the fine-tuning and testing stage, the socket is being built so that patients can adjust it themselves.
“So, it won’t be just a case of a patient going to a clinic, getting it adjusted and then going back home and that’s it, they can no longer modify it based on their changing needs. For example, when you’re playing a sport, sometimes your foot would swell, and you might need to loosen your shoe or sometimes you might need to tighten your shoe. The idea is to design a socket in a way where we can allow the patient to adjust it to improve the fit.
“We have volumetric adjustability, which is adjusting the thickness, and then longitudinal adjustability. So, we actually have designed it in a way where it can modify with length, which is more targeted towards pediatric patients; the idea is that for young children, the prosthetic can grow with them.”
Another device Awenza wants to bring to market is called an FMG sensor, “which is basically an array of sensors that detect the muscle movement around residual limb,” says Awara. “And this will be able to give a very good mapping of all the different motion and movement of the residual limb area and with that, algorithms can really pick up the signals to provide a better response for the patients.”
A major project to launch in partnership with Dalhousie University in January will focus on installing several small motors where one larger motor would normally be placed in a prosthetic device, giving users much more freedom of movement and functionality. Taken to an extreme vision of success, this technology could one day enable the user to play an instrument with their prosthetic.
Interns fuel growth
Mitacs interns, primarily recruited from Dalhousie University — including one who has been hired full-time — have been a key part of Awenza’s R&D success. “He’s a rockstar as an engineer, very talented when it comes to electronics hardware as well as software design,” Awara says of the former intern, now employee. “He’s really helped us grow the technology.”
“Mitacs has provided us access to resources, access to talent, and access to that additional R&D layer.”
Following more R&D, the company will eventually embark on a regulatory journey, seeking approvals from Health Canada and the FDA for their new products.