Startup Spotlight: Kinova Creating Robot Arms That Improve Lives

This Canadian company wants to build the best assistive robots for the disabled

3 min read
Startup Spotlight: Kinova Creating Robot Arms That Improve Lives

This is the second post in our Startup Spotlight series featuring new robotics companies from around the world. We’re inviting representatives from the companies to describe their technologies and how they see the marketplace. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

When he was a child, Kinova’s co-founder and CEO Charles Deguire used to spend his summer vacations with his family in the beautiful region of Gaspesie in Quebec, Canada. Among the family members were three uncles who lived with muscular dystrophy. This muscle disease, which weakens the musculoskeletal system, caused Charles’ uncles to live confined in power wheelchairs controlled only with the small residual movements left in their fingers. Charles learned at a young age all the challenges that people in wheelchairs face on a daily basis.

Startup Spotlight: Kinova

Kinova Robotics

Founded: May 2006

Location:Montreal, Canada.

Focus: Assistive robotics

Founders:Charles Deguire, Louis-Joseph Caron-L’Écuyer

Funding:Angel funding

Fun Fact:The company’s robotic arm, Jaco, is named after one of the founder’s uncles, who was an inventor and build an early robotic arm himself

One of these uncles, Jacques Forest, nicknamed Jaco, was an inventor. Jaco was constantly having new ideas. In the 1980s, he decided to build a mechanical arm to help him accomplish daily tasks. Using windshield wiper motors, bicycle wires, Luxo lamp parts, and a hot-dog claw as a gripper, he was able to build an arm that let him drink a glass of water by himself. Certainly the design wasn’t the most elegant and the control was quite rudimentary, but Jaco showed how technology could significantly improve the quality of life of upper-body disabled persons.

Two decades later, while Charles was studying electrical engineering at l’École de Technologie Supérieure, his mother asked if he ever thought of continuing his uncle’s project. Not long after, Charles asked his long-time friend and university colleague Louis-Joseph Caron-L’Écuyer (now Kinova’s CTO) to start this adventure with him. The goal: creating the best assistive robot for upper-body disabled people.

Thus was born Kinova and its first creation, the robotic arm Jaco, names after Charles’ now-deceased uncle.

It was clear from the start that Kinova should focus on building a robot specifically designed for its users: a system that both answers their needs and respects their condition. The company quickly discarded using existing robotic components or retrofitting available manipulators: those options wouldn’t be able to meet all requirements. These included a light and compact design that wouldn’t change the wheelchair balance and width. The arm also had to be able to pick a wide variety of objects, feature an intuitive control system, and be weatherproof, reliable, and easy and quick to install and repair.

It took four years to overcome all the technical challenges. From the basement of the university incubator, the two young entrepreneurs had to develop a complex carbon fiber molding process, used to build intricately shaped parts, as well as a control approach simple enough to be mastered even by users with only limited finger movements.

Jaco was introduced in the rehabilitation market in 2010 (the video below showcases the arm’s capabilities and how it can help users in different situations).

In 2012, Kinova demonstrated the Jaco Research Edition to the IEEE research community at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in St-Paul, Minn. By adding the necessary programming tools to Jaco, the platform became a versatile solution for a broad range of research topics: mobile manipulation, automated grasping, brain-machine interfaces, and others.

Kinova now has sold over 150 Jaco units. The company, which currently employs 20 people, intends to expand its product line for manipulation in the next few years. At ICRA 2013, in May, Kinova will unveil its brand new manipulation solution for the research community.

Francois Boucher is business development director at Kinova, in Montreal, Canada.

The Conversation (0)

How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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