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While Robert Horst was in high school, he suffered a knee injury that required three surgeries to fix. He endured a long healing process, and the primitive rehabilitation technology used frustrated him. So he decided to do something about it.
Horst, who received his MSEE in 1978 and Ph.D. in Computer Science in 1991 from the University of Illinois, envisioned a company that developed sophisticated, robotic medical devices and therapies to help patients with musculoskeletal and neuromuscular deficiencies. After working more than 30 years in computer design, he decided it was time to make his vision a reality.
“The idea to create a robotic device was always in the back of my mind, and I eventually got the opportunity to do it,” he said.
Horst cofounded Tibion Bionic Technologies with Kern Bhugra in 2002, and immediately began creating and marketing the PK 100 Bionic Leg Orthosis, a powered, assistive leg device that enhances knee rehabilitation therapy.
The PK100 is a battery-powered device with sensors to detect what the person is doing. It reacts to those sensors and acts as an amplifier for the person’s muscle movement.
“That’s important, especially in stroke rehab, because recent research in neuroplasticity has shown that the neural pathways can be retrained, but it requires the patient to be actively involved,” Horst said. “With our device, they can walk with a much more normal gait, and when they do that, they’re retraining the neural pathways to produce the right muscle forces.”
Tibion received capital funding in 2006 and a medical device license for its product in 2008. This allowed the company to begin testing with actual patients at several different physical therapy facilities.
Horst said the company found the device to work very well, particularly with stroke patients who had hemiparesis, a condition that creates a weakness on one side of the body.
“Using our device helped correct several problems and taught the patients to walk better,” Horst said. “Even people who experienced a stroke several years before learned to walk better after only a few sessions.”
The product also shows promise for people recovering from traumatic brain injuries and incomplete spinal cord injuries; patients with Parkinson’s disease and MS; and those with mobility problems due to total knee replacement surgery or arthritis.
After seeing positive results with the first patients, Horst said three clinics have begun therapy programs based on the product, with several more showing interest and serious consideration. In addition, Tibion has won two awards for the PK100. And while its focus is on the PK100 presently, Tibion has plans to expand its product line.
“I think there’s a huge future for robotic therapy and assistance devices. Our PK100 is really the first commercial device in this field,” he said. “We can imagine devices that assist other joints and devices that would be more affordable so that a larger population of people can use them.”
Dr. Horst came to the University of Illinois and gave a seminar entitled, ‘A Robotic Leg Orthosis for Rehabilitation and Mobility Enhancement” at the CSL on Sept. 11. Horst is an IEEE Fellow and holds 71 patents.