World’s first adaptable robotic exoskeleton for children: Elena García Armada named European Inventor Award 2022 finalist
- Spanish scientist Elena García Armada nominated for European Patent Office (EPO) prize for an exoskeleton that helps paralysed children walk
- The robotic exoskeleton reacts to subtle movements and cushions sudden blows, opening new treatment potential for millions of young people
- García secured medical clearance for her invention in 2021 and has since sold devices to hospitals in Spain and Mexico
Munich, 17 May 2022 - The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that Spanish scientist Elena García Armada has been nominated as a finalist for the European Inventor Award 2022 for her pioneering work on paediatric exoskeletons. Her invention, which was inspired by meeting a young girl called Daniela who was paralysed in a traffic accident, allows children using wheelchairs to walk during rehabilitation sessions and reduces muscle degradation and medical complications.
García is a leading professor of engineering at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) whose research on robotics has been cited in over 2600 peer-reviewed publications. She began developing the world's first adjustable exoskeleton for children after learning no such solution existed - a decision that has the potential to improve the life expectancy and mental wellbeing of millions of young patients.
"By leveraging her vast expertise in robotics and adjustable joints, García has developed a unique exoskeleton for children and solved a problem in the medical device sector," says EPO President António Campinos. "Her invention not only improves the health and wellbeing of children in wheelchairs by lifting them to their feet. It also offers new hope to families and caregivers who have been waiting on such a device for many years."
Her inspirational work has seen her selected as one of three finalists in the "Research" category for the European Inventor Award, which recognises inventions built on breakthroughs in cutting edge science. The winners of the 2022 edition of the EPO's European Inventor Award will be announced at a virtual ceremony on 21 June.
Pioneering paediatric care
Up until 2009, García's research had a focus on exoskeletons for workers in heavy industry. After meeting Daniela, she shifted her focus to paediatric care. She was shocked to discover that no adaptable exoskeletons existed for children - even though the technology has helped adults walk since the 1960s. The Spanish robotics expert was determined to help because young wheelchair users are at a higher risk of early-age muscle degradation and deformities of the spine, ultimately affecting their lungs and heart, and shortening their lifespan.
"When I looked into the figures and found that 17 million families faced this bleak outlook and no solution was in sight, I realised that I should solve the problem myself," García said.
The inventor set out to develop paediatric exoskeletons and over the next few years worked on a solution: an adjustable suit of titanium connected to a battery and a network of small motors with sensors, software and machinery. These components work together as mechanical joints that adjust to the body and magnify gentle movements while also adapting to the motion of each child as their rehabilitation progresses, allowing for more tailored treatment. The exoskeleton can be fitted to a child, typically between 3- to 10-years-old, in under 8 minutes, allowing them to walk during muscle rehabilitation sessions.
In 2013, García ran her first trials with Daniela, whose face lit up when she started walking in the exoskeleton. Several children were also able to walk for the first time in their life, with some parents reporting improvements in their child's mental wellbeing. Other patients performed better at school and became more sociable.
"My invention is something more than a medical device," says García.
After footage showing Daniela walking went viral, García was inundated with requests to help families around the world.
She founded Marsi Bionics and began to industrialise prototypes, following the International Medical Devices Directive, and run clinical trials, applying for her first patent for elastic actuators - joints with adjustable firmness that respond to subtle muscle motion - in 2013. In 2014 she applied for a second patent for an exoskeleton that can be adapted to different medical conditions and physical properties of the body.
García decided to improve access to her exoskeleton by licencing her invention to a manufacturer, but during its development she realised that it was quicker to commercialise the exoskeleton herself. "By the time we had industrialized and clinically tested the invention, we no longer needed to licence it," said García. "We could sell it ourselves."
In the years that followed, García commercialised two of her patented inventions. "Patents proved vital to raise investment," says García, adding that without the patents there would have been no way to hire the talent needed to bring the invention to the market.
Marsi Bionics has since grown to 25 staff while García's paediatric exoskeleton has been cleared for use in rehabilitation centres and hospitals across the EU and Mexico. This helped Marsi Bionics deliver its first exoskeletons to medical centres in Spain and Mexico, with García expecting to extend sales across the EU, UK and the Americas. Analysts valued the exoskeleton market at EUR 430 million in 2021 and project growth to EUR 2.8 billion by 2026.
Notes to the editor
About the inventor
Elena García Armada studied industrial engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Spain, where she obtained her PhD in robotics in 2002. She conducted early research at the Leg Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has since worked at the Centre for Automation and Robotics (CAR) at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). García has been recognised by numerous awards, including the Innova Award in 2014, the CEPY prize in 2015 for entrepreneurial projects, the ABC Health Award for the best health technology in 2016, the Gold Medal of the City of Madrid in 2018, Fermina Orduña Technology Innovation Award 2021, and the European Innovation Council Woman Innovator Award 2021,
About the European Inventor Award
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, the award honours individuals and teams' solutions to some of the biggest challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury comprising former Award finalists. Together, they examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social and sustainable development and economic prosperity. The EPO will confer the Award in four categories (Industry, Research, SMEs and Non-EPO countries), as well as announcing a Lifetime achievement award at a virtual ceremony on 21 June. In addition, the public selects the Popular Prize winner from the 13 finalists by voting on the EPO website in the run-up to the ceremony. Voting is open until 21 June 2022. Read more on the European Inventor Award eligibility and selection criteria.
This year, for the first time, the EPO will also award bright young minds with the Young Inventors prize. The new prize offers a monetary reward to the three finalists to further encourage them to find creative solutions to pressing sustainable development challenges.
About the EPO
With 6 400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
Media contacts European Patent Office
Luis Berenguer Giménez
Principal Director Communication, Spokesperson
EPO Press Desk
Tel. +49 89 2399 1833