Elena García Armada, European Inventor Award 2022 for her pioneering pediatric exoskeleton

Elena García Armada has designed the world's first adaptable children's exoskeleton. / epo

Science | robotics

The invention helps paralyzed children to walk during rehabilitation sessions

Elena Martin Lopez

Elena García Armada, an engineer at the Center for Automation and Robotics (CAR-CSIC-UPM) and a researcher at the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), had been analyzing the problem of exoskeletons for a few years, but it was not until she met Daniela, a girl who had been paralyzed after suffering a traffic accident, when she had the idea of ​​developing a pediatric exoskeleton. This Tuesday, his invention, which allows children in wheelchairs to walk during rehabilitation sessions, which reduces muscle breakdown and medical complications, has been recognized with the 2022 European Inventor Award, granted by the European Patent Office (EPO).

The scientist thus receives one of the most important international awards in the field of innovation, after obtaining the highest number of votes from the public in the research category among the 13 finalists. “The public vote for Elena García Armada recognizes the determination, ingenuity and contribution of this exceptional inventor, who has harnessed her experience and expertise in robotics and health technology to improve the lives of many children,” said António Campinos, President of the EPO. "Her invention of her enables the experience of walking during rehabilitation sessions for children who might not otherwise be able to do so, and offers hope to many who have been waiting for new treatment possibilities," he added.

The last Spanish woman to receive this award was the scientist Margarita Salas, in recognition of her innovative work in genetics and molecular biology, whom García Armada recalled in her acceptance speech. “This award is a source of pride for me, but also for Spain, because the pediatric exoskeleton is a scientific success resulting from the transfer of knowledge from our country. Taking up the witness of my admired Margarita Salas makes this recognition something even more special », she has affirmed.

An unmet need

Although adult exoskeletons have been around since the 1960s, no one had developed one for children until Elena García Armada began analyzing the problem in 2009. "When I looked at the figures and discovered that 17 million families were facing this bleak outlook and there was no solution in sight, I realized that I had to solve the problem myself”, García said in an interview with the CSIC about his invention.

In 2013, he carried out his first successful tests with little Daniela and the images showing the little girl walking went viral. Overnight, García Armada was inundated with requests to help families from all over the world. It was when she founded the company Marsi Bionics and began to industrialize prototypes and conduct clinical trials. In 2013, she applied for her first patent, and a year later, she applied for a second one.

Children's pediatric exoskeleton of the CAR-CSIC-UPM, developed by Elena García-Armada. /

csic

The need was especially focused on the fact that young wheelchair users are at risk of spinal deformities, which can ultimately shorten their lives. The challenge, however, was not just limited to downsizing adult exoskeletons to fit a smaller body. The reason is that children with paralysis are often unable to walk due to neurological conditions and have complex symptoms in terms of joint movements, so the exoskeleton needed to be adaptable and able to be adjusted according to each patient's symptoms.

García Armada then invented an adjustable titanium suit connected to a battery and a network of small motors with sensors, software and machinery. The resulting mechanical joints intelligently adapt to each child's movement as their rehabilitation progresses, helping to reduce muscle breakdown and medical complications, while potentially improving children's mental well-being and sociability.

In 2021, he obtained medical clearance. Since then, Marsi Bionics has grown to 25 employees and the pediatric exoskeleton is already in use in rehabilitation centers and hospitals in the European Union and Mexico. Analysts have valued the exoskeleton market at €430 million in 2021 and project growth at €2.8 billion by 2026.

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