“A human can never be broken,” Hugh Herr stresses in his TED talk.
Hugh grew up a climbing prodigy. Then, at age seventeen, he and his climbing partner became lost in blinding winter weather while ice climbing on Mt. Washington. Near the summit of the mountain they took a wrong turn. After spending nearly four days exposed to the elements, rescuers saved them. By then, though, hypothermia and frostbite had set in. Doctors amputated both of Hugh’s legs six inches below the knee.
Thirty years later, he walked out on to the TED stage wearing prosthetic legs he designed and developed. He’s on the leading edge of bionics research, advancing the creation of prosthetics and exoskeletons as co-director of MIT’s Center for Extreme Bionics. In 2011, TIME called him the “Leader of the Bionic Age” because of his work. Watch the video, you’ll see why.
Hugh talks, and walks, the audience through the technology he’s developing as well as the technology he’s wearing: sleek silver and black, futuristic prosthetic legs. He demonstrates the first running gait by neural command ever, himself. He talks through the mechanical, dynamic, and electrical interfaces necessary for bionics. It all builds to a breathtaking display: Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a ballroom dancer who lost her left leg in the Boston terror attacks, performed again for the first time since the attack. She wore a prosthetic Hugh and his MIT team developed.
We wanted to take a look behind the curtain, and talk with Hugh about how these amazing innovations came to be.
“Invention is pretty easy, it’s pretty common. Innovation is extremely hard.”
Throughout his career, Hugh has partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs and, recently, VA Center for Innovation to advance prosthetics research and innovation. You can see the results in his talk. That device you see at the 6 minute mark? It, as Hugh says, looks “like a time machine.” That’s the VACI-funded FitSocket, a robotic device that measures the stiffness and damping properties of residual limb tissues.
The foot-ankle device he discusses at length starting at the 8 minute mark? The BiOM. It’s the result of Hugh’s most successful partnership with VA.
The BiOM is the world’s first powered foot-ankle device. Your typical prosthetic is entirely human-powered, “like a bicycle”, says Hugh. The wearer’s muscular effort alone energizes their movement. The “ankle” is inflexible. That’s not the case with the BiOM. It modulates the ankle’s stiffness and provides power assist.
“The BiOM actually injects energy and emulates lost muscle function,” Hugh says proudly. “We’ve actually shown, for people with a below-knee amputation, that the BiOM normalizes walking speed and metabolism as well as key musculoskeletal stress measurements.” Simply put, it lets people walk at the speed they want in a manner that more closely resembles, in comfort and function, walking with a biological leg. It propels them when they step up the stairs, like a calf muscle would. TIME named it one of the top ten inventions of 2007. Today, the BiOM has been used by nearly a thousand people, roughly half of which have been Veterans and military personnel.
It’s a real innovation, not simply a promising invention. Hugh explains:
“The BiOM is an innovation because it is manufactured and distributed, and is available to patients. In distinction, an invention is an idea, but an idea that has not yet been made available to patients. Invention is pretty easy; it’s pretty common. Innovation is extremely hard.”
BiOM came to be because each actor in an ecosystem of innovation played their part. In Hugh’s eyes, “innovation requires a teaming, a collaboration, between government bodies, universities, and for-profit entities. If you take one of those pieces out of the equation it doesn’t happen.” In this case, VA funded the research MIT conducted. BiOM, the company Hugh founded, manufactured the product that grew out of that research. VA then worked, in its capacity as an insurer, to close the loop by reimbursing Veterans who choose to use the prosthesis. These various roles and responsibilities —from the glamour of invention to the nitty-gritty of reimbursement (in this case) — are key to successful innovation. “Every entity has its place [in the process],” Hugh says, “and every entity is essential. If one of those entities fails to exist or doesn’t do their job then innovation stops.”
We’re determined not to let that happen. When we get it right – the payoff is huge. Just listen to what Marine Corporal William Gadsby told Smithsonian Magazine: “Now I can hike,” he said. “I can drive all the way to Florida. I can cart a bunch of heavy suitcases when we go on vacation. I can throw my son on my shoulders and walk around with him. I can be a dad. The bottom line is that I’ve always tried to make sure my wounds aren’t my family’s wounds. The BiOM allows me to do that.”