HALIFAX — A pair of Nova Scotia researchers are close to producing a "bionic" knee brace that enhances ability and reduces fatigue, and have now landed a lucrative contract to produce a beefed-up version for the Canadian Armed Forces.
Full production is expected to start this summer on the Levitation brace, which stores energy when you bend your knees and releases it as you straighten.
"It packs the power of a robotic exoskeleton, but it’s roughly one-hundredth the cost," said Chris Cowper-Smith, the 31-year-old CEO and co-founder of Spring Loaded Technology, makers of the two-pound brace.
Spring Loaded said this week it has secured $1.9 million in venture capital, as well as a military contract worth $1 million to produce a reinforced version of the consumer-grade brace at its Dartmouth plant.
The military brace will have reinforced rods to make it stronger and a knee-pad that will complement the military’s tactical gear.
"Lots of soldiers are regularly crouching and standing back up, and they often have very heavy packs on — 120 pounds. Our brace can help reduce the burden of all that weight," said Cowper-Smith.
He said the company is also looking at producing a special brace for paratroopers, one that can withstand the high-impact stress associated with military parachute droops.
The brace, which can be worn under clothing, is made of light-weight carbon fibre. A high-strength Spectra cord extends from the bottom of the brace through a series of gears at the joint and up to a so-called liquid spring at the top.
The civilian product, to be sold for $2,500, is intended for athletes going through rehabilitation, workers needing to alleviate knee stress and fatigue and older people with worn-out knees.
Cowper-Smith and partner Bob Garrish, the company’s chief technology officer, joined together while working on their PhDs at Dalhousie University.
Cowper-Smith, studying neuroscience, and Garrish, studying mechanical engineering, were part of a program called "Starting Lean," that brought together people from various disciplines to form teams that developed business ideas.
Both men had knee issues. Garrish suffers from osteoarthritis in both knees, and Cowper-Smith was suffering at the time from anterior knee pain, which is also known as runner’s knee.
They got the idea for the brace in late 2012.
"We talked to hundreds of surgeons and physiotherapists to see if the idea was worth pursuing and we determined it was," Cowper-Smith said.
There are similar braces on the market, but Cowper-Smith insists Levitation is unique. He said no other brace includes a strong enough spring to actually assist when wearers extend their legs.
"We augment the power of your quadricep muscles. Other braces just provide stability … or prevent hyperextension."
Their first investor came on board in January 2013, providing $100,000.
Other money came in from private investors, Nova Scotia’s Innova Corp., ACOA, the National Research Council and through winning a series of business model competitions.
Last June, the pair won $100,000 from the Business Development Bank of Canada through its Young Entrepreneur Award.
More recently, a one-month online fundraising campaign through Indiegogo raised more than $200,000. It finished on Thursday.
The Indiegogo site offered buyers the chance to pre-order the Levitation brace for as little as $1,149, which brought in pre-orders from 25 countries.
One of the company’s partners is Build Ventures, a Halifax-based, $65-million venture capital fund focused on Canadian tech start-ups, which has anted up $1.9 million.
"Spring Loaded Technology has the potential to revolutionize the marketplace," Rob Barbara of Build Ventures said in a release.
The company’s plant employs 15 people, who have made hundreds of prototype braces.
"We have to make sure our production line works perfectly. We don’t want to ship out a bunch of faulty product," said Cowper-Smith.
Spring Loaded plans to branch out to more traditional retail within the next year.