Wired In: Jesse Cornman

Wired In: Jesse Cornman

Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet JESSE CORNMAN, senior robotics engineer Psyonic, a startup lauched in 2015 at EnterpriseWorks that's changing the way people with prosthetic limbs are navigating their way through life. The company's mission is to deliver advanced, neurally controlled prosthetics that are more advanced and more affordable than other state-of-the-art prosthesis that are currently available on the market.

What's different about Psyonic's prosthetic limbs? How do you make them are 20 percent lighter than the average human hand weigh?

The key is the use of inexpensive, compliant building materials. We use molded, silicon-based materials in our hand which are lighter and more importantly, more robust than the materials used in most conventional hands; you can actually hit our fingers with a baseball bat or a hammer and they will still work.

How do you make them feel like real flesh? Do you use 3-D printing?

We've found that while 3-D printing is a useful prototyping tool, the parts you can make with it are much too weak to be useful in a prosthetic. However we've discovered that it can be very useful for creating molds, which allow us to try a lot of different molded silicon designs very cheaply.

What are you improving on now?

We have some exciting new projects coming up, including a powered wrist and improvements on the hand that will make the grip stronger and faster. I'll be making improvements to our neural interface as well, allowing us to provide better control and touch feedback. We also have to go through FDA class II approval, so a significant amount of money will be diverted to that as well.

Tell us how gears and motors are controlled neurally.

Modern prosthetics are controlled using a combination of electrodes that measure muscle movement, and machine learning which allows us to interpret what those signals mean. One of my main roles in the company is to design the physical hardware responsible for reading those signals and running our machine learning algorithm. Over the summer, Psyonic was working in Shenzhen, China, and while I was there I developed a neural control system that is cheaper and better performing than all of our previous designs.

When you're ready, how much will it cost to manufacture?

One of our primary goals is to make our hand as accessible as possible. Our target price-point will be low enough that the entire hand can be covered by Medicare with no out-of-pocket cost to the user.

You had Sgt. Garrett Anderson, a war veteran amputee, test the bionic hand by picking up hollowed-out eggshells and hammering nails. How did he do?

Really well! Another major part of my work involves the design of our sensory feedback system, which I designed from the ground up; when Garrett was performing those tasks he was actually getting touch feedback from our hand, which allowed him to handle the eggshells without crushing them. A user of a typical bionic hand wouldn't even consider hammering nails with their prosthesis, but because of the robustness of our device he didn't have to worry about missing a nail and his finger.

Do you have approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take the bionic hand to market? If not, how long will it probably take?

We're going to be pursuing FDA class II clearance by the end of next year. We expect that process to take about eight to 10 months.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

I really appreciate the independence and energy that comes with a startup environment. As an engineer, I also really like that I'm not getting pigeonholed into one particular role; since we have a small, highly focused team I end up working on a lot of very different projects, and I have a lot of creative freedom in terms of how I can approach a problem.

Did you ever make any mistakes in your early years?

Absolutely! Electronics can be very tricky, and building things and messing up is one of the best ways to learn. In engineering, mistakes are learning opportunities, and I think we've grown a lot in that regard over the past few years.

What's in the future for your company?

In the most immediate future, we're working with advanced new motors that will make our hand stronger and faster. We've also found from talking to clinicians and amputees that having powered wrists is incredibly important for performing day-to-day tasks, so we're beginning development on a wrist that can rotate and flex.

TECH TIDBITS ... from JESSE CORNMAN

Favorite app: Spectrogram by Galmiza

On Facebook I follow... PSYONIC!

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? "The Martian," by Andy Weir.

Do you have any wearable electronics? Nope, but I've designed some!

Do you have an entrepreneur hero? Elon Musk.

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