As a youth, Charles Deguire did everything he could to help three uncles with muscular dystrophy.
One of them, Jacques Forest, had designed a clever makeshift arm that could pick up objects. He built it with whatever was available — including windshield wiper motors, parts of a desk lamp, and hotdog tongs. And the first thing Forest did with his arm was pick a rose for his sister.
After his uncle died, Deguire began making the invention better.
Sixteen years later, Kinova Robotics was born. Founded by Deguire and another engineer, Louis-Joseph Caron L’Ecuyer, the Canada-based company operates globally, designing and building robotics platforms and components.
Although much of what it produces has industrial, research or other applications, Kinova also makes devices that empower those with physical disabilities. In that respect, its star is Jaco, named for its original designer.
Launched in 2009 and sold in the U.S. for the past three years, Jaco is a six-axis robotic manipulator arm with a two- or three-finger hand. It significantly improves the lives of those with reduced upper body mobility by helping them perform complex actions.
Kevin Schaefer can attest to its usefulness. He has a form of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic disease that causes muscle weakness and progressive loss of movement. Attached to his wheelchair and controlled by a joy stick, Jaco allows Schaefer to feed himself, press elevator buttons, scratch his head, and adjust his glasses — all things he either could no longer do or was never able to do.
“My independence has skyrocketed,” said Schaefer, 23, a columnist for SMA News Today. “Before, I’d have to contact friends to have someone to be with me to help me. Now I can be left alone if I need to.”
Schaefer, who lives with his parents in Cary, North Carolina, was diagnosed with SMA type 2 at 18 months, and began losing arm and upper body strength when he was a high school sophomore. He tried an assistive device, but it required physical strength and didn’t work well.
When Schaefer was in college, his mother discovered Jaco. Back then, hardly any insurance covered the $50,000 device. So, he and his family did a fundraising campaign. He got his robotic arm in 2015.
“It’s incredibly easy to use,” Schaefer said. “I can change modes and use the entire arm, or just the fingers. I adapted to it fairly quickly, and my parents love it.”
Kinova has sold about 300 globally for rehabilitative purposes, mostly in the Netherlands and other European countries. In the U.S., the company has been increasingly successful getting private insurance to cover Jaco, said Abe Clark, a Kinova product specialist. It is still trying to obtain Medicare and Medicaid coverage.
The arm has also become a research tool in labs worldwide. It has been used in tandem with a four-wheel robot, and mounted with a spraying device, to kill the Ebola virus. “Because of its characteristics, it’s useful for science,” Clark said in an interview. “It’s lightweight and compact and easy to set up.”