This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Alec McMorris walked quickly up and down a short staircase in the University of Utah’s Bionic Engineering lab in front of a rapt audience on Wednesday.
Then, McMorris, an above-knee amputee, demonstrated the capabilities of the sleek black and red bionic leg by walking across a small patch of turf and cobblestone as part of an announcement of a partnership between Ottobock, a Germany-based prosthetics company, and the U.
“We really have this power that comes from the electromechanical monitors embedded into the device,” Tommaso Lenzi, a U. engineering associate professor and lead researcher on the Utah Bionic Leg project, said in an interview. “We want to make sure whenever these reach the market it’s the best device out there and it’s something people can really rely on in their everyday life.”
He believes the partnership with Ottobock will help bring the device to market more quickly and expand accessibility to more advanced prosthetic technologies that make day-to-day life easier for amputees.
The bionic leg made a sort of squelching sound — a result of the gears and motors shifting. McMorris has consulted with the research team for five years. The difference between the prosthetic leg he uses every day and in his role as a football coach in Grantsville and the Utah Bionic Leg, he said, “is like going from ‘walking on a Lambo [Lamborghini] to going back to a Camry.’”
The Utah Bionic Leg has been a key subject of research for Lenzi for the past six years. Researchers in the department also developed an exoskeleton which assists above-the-knee amputees.
The leg relies in part on artificial intelligence and torque sensors, creating a “smart transmission system” which makes walking on stairs, or uneven ground, easier. It is also extraordinarily light, weighing just six pounds.
Lenzi said research on the Utah Bionic Leg has also been supported by approximately six to seven million from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health and the Department of Defense.
Ottobock will invest additional resources as part of the agreement, allowing the lab to purchase new equipment like a “force-sensing” staircase similar to ones used in Hollywood to create CGI effects, as well as a force-sensing treadmill and 3D motion-capture cameras.
Also announced on Wednesday: Going forward, the Bionic Engineering Lab will be known as the the Hans Georg Näder Laboratory, after Ottobock’s owner, who spoke briefly at the event. Dressed in a suit and with a scarf draped loosely around his neck, Näder told the audience of researchers, “You are the inventors of human empowerment.” He gave the researchers shrink-wrapped copies of his book “Futuring Human Empowerment.”
The U. and Ottobock also entered into a licensing agreement as part of their partnership. The university will receive a share of profits from the bionic leg when it goes to market, as per similar agreements between research institutions and private companies.
Before that can happen, the device will have to undergo more testing, refinement and eventually FDA approval. The team expects it will take at least three to four years before the prosthetic is available to consumers, Lenzi said.
Making the product affordable is already a consideration. Lenzi said the team is “making sure the building blocks are not that expensive,” in addition to performing clinical trials showing there’s a clear benefit to the leg so that insurers will cover it.
Advanced prosthetics like the Utah Bionic Leg can cost a consumer upwards of $70,000.
That can be a financial sting for amputees and their families. Insurance companies have typically been unwilling to cover more than basic prosthetics. “It’s kind of a backward world as far as insurance goes for amputees,” McMorris said. “I feel like it’s kind of set up to give us more of a minimal device rather than a device that we can really push, and use and grow with.”
But as the Utah Bionic Leg moved one step closer to production, McMorris envisioned a reality of greater mobility for himself and so many others.