The following paper is a “Q&A interview” conducted by Joanne Pransky of Industrial Robot Journal as a method to impart the combined technological, business and personal experience of a prominent, robotic industry PhD-turned successful innovator and entrepreneur regarding the commercialization and challenges of bringing his technological inventions to market. This paper aims to discuss these issues.
Considered one of the top biomechatronics researchers in the world, Dr Hugh Herr heads the MIT Biomechatronics Research Group and Center for Extreme Bionics. His research programs seek to advance technologies that promise to accelerate the merging of body and machine, including device architectures that resemble the body’s musculoskeletal design, actuator technologies that behave like muscle and control methodologies that exploit principles of biological movement. Herr’s methods encompass a diverse set of scientific and technological disciplines that are advancing an emerging field of engineering science that applies principles of biomechanics and neural control to guide the designs of human rehabilitation and augmentative devices.
As a teenager, Herr was a highly competitive mountain climber until he had to have both legs amputated below the knees after suffering severe frostbite during a 1982 mountain expedition at the age of 17. As a result of this experience, he directed his efforts and talent to try to improve the mobility of people with disabilities. He graduated in physics in 1990 from the Millersville University (Pennsylvania). He subsequently earned a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1993 and a PhD in Biophysics at Harvard University in 1998. He then was a postdoctoral fellow in medical devices at MIT. He was Assistant Professor at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard Medical School. Since 2000, he has been heading the MIT Biomechatronics Group within the Media Lab and has been Co-directing the Lab’s Center for Extreme Bionics since 2014. To bring his inventions to market, Herr founded a spin-off company out of MIT under the name iWalk in 2007, which was relaunched as BionX Medical Technologies Inc. in 2015, and acquired by Ottobock in 2017.
Herr is a world leader and inventor in the field of bionics and biomechanics whose research accomplishments have already made a significant impact on physically challenged people. Herr has produced several groundbreaking products, starting with a computer-controlled artificial knee in 2003, called the Rheo Knee™ System and commercialized by Össur Inc. He also designed his own bionic lower legs, the world’s first powered ankle-foot prosthesis to emulate the action of a biological leg and, for the first time, provides amputees with a natural gait. The Empower ankle system is now marketed by Ottobock. He is presently working on NeuroEmbodied Design methodology to restore proprioception to amputees. Herr has received major accolades including the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Leadership Award (2005), the Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment (2007) and R&D Magazine’s 14th Innovator of the Year Award (2014) and a No Barriers Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 No Barriers Summit. His innovations were listed twice among TIME magazine’s Top Ten Inventions (2004; 2007) and which called him “Leader of the Bionic Age” in 2011. His life story has been told in the book Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr (1991) and in the film Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr, made in 2002 by National Geographic. He is the author and co-author of more than 150 peer-reviewed papers and patents.
Pransky, J. (2020), "The Pransky interview: Dr. Hugh Herr – Professor, MIT Media Lab; Director, Biomechatronics Group and Co-director, MIT Center for Extreme Bionics; Founder, BionX Medical Technologies Inc.", Industrial Robot, Vol. 47 No. 6, pp. 795-799. https://doi.org/10.1108/IR-06-2020-0115
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