Aunt’s multiple sclerosis struggle inspires AI glove

Posted on February 16, 2021 by Jonathan Symcox

BioLiberty co-founder Rowan Armstrong

BioLiberty co-founder Rowan Armstrong tests the glove

An entrepreneur was inspired to build a glove powered by artificial intelligence after witnessing his aunt’s struggles with multiple sclerosis. 

When she began to lose movement, Ross O’Hanlon, now 24, launched BioLiberty with three co-founders with the aim of improving hand grip for millions with muscle weakness. 

Finding little support for individuals unable to grip with their hands, he noticed simple tasks like changing the TV channel or drinking water were becoming difficult for her. 

“Being an engineer, I decided to use technology to tackle these challenges head on with the aim of helping people like my aunt to retain their autonomy,” O’Hanlon said. 

“As well as those affected by illness, the population continues to age and this places increasing pressure on care services. We wanted to support independent living and healthy aging by enabling individuals to live more comfortably in their own homes for longer.  

“While there are many gadgets on the market that address a specific grip challenge such as tools to help open jars, I wanted an all-encompassing solution to support a range of daily tasks.  

“We founded BioLiberty while studying and we’ve already achieved a working prototype but, with a background in engineering, converting a good idea into a successful business can be overwhelming.” 

The start-up has now secured support from the Edinburgh Business School’s Incubator, based at Heriot-Watt University, to help accelerate the introduction of the assisted living technology into homes. 

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There are 2.5m people living with hand weakness in the UK because of muscle mass loss as they age or due to illnesses like multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease and carpal tunnel syndrome. 

Using Electromyography to measure electrical activity in response to a nerve’s stimulation of the muscle, the glove detects a user’s intention to grip. It then employs an algorithm to convert the intention into force, helping the user to hold an item or apply the necessary pressure to complete an activity. 

The technology is expected to help with a wide range of day-to-day tasks including opening jars, driving and pouring a cup of tea.  

“Up to now, we’ve funded the company from business competition awards so being accepted into the Edinburgh Business School Incubator programme is a huge boost. We’re confident that support of this type will help accelerate the glove into homes more quickly,” said O’Hanlon. 

“I hope to inspire other entrepreneurs to take the next step. Businesses don’t need a lot of money to start because a good idea can help access the support networks out there.  

The Edinburgh Business School Incubator has an incredible programme for early-stage businesses like ours, supporting challenges all new companies face including the drive for additional funding, marketing, networking, scaling and forging collaborations.” 

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Kallum Russell is the business incubator manager at the Edinburgh Business School. He said: “Heriot-Watt University is renowned for its robotics and AI expertise with a strong focus on the development of assisted living technology within the National Robotarium.  

“As the impact of the pandemic further erodes the economy, access to support services for business owners has been curtailed. As a result, incubators like ours are even more valuable in supporting the development of innovative new products and services which will help drive economic recovery and growth. 

“This month, we’re welcoming seven new companies into the Incubator and, while striving to minimise the impact of lockdown on these fledgling companies, we’ll support their growth using a range of virtual seminars, speaker opportunities, networking events and mentoring services.  

The types of businesses we support are wide ranging with this year’s intake including a mobile app to reduce printing receipts, a circular clean energy solution and an American style brewery. We will be working with them to identify suitable markets, pivoting plans where required to factor in the impact of the pandemic.” 

Once companies leave the Incubator, the University’s Global Research Innovation and Discovery facility supports next stage business growth through accelerated scale-up and development processes.   

Bringing together entrepreneurial talent with academia and enterprise expertise to tackle global challenges to drive the future economy, GRID has successfully supported companies ranging from technology to enable earlier cancer diagnoses to flat pack solar thermal collectors designed for use in impoverished countries. 

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