Owl Labs' robotic prosthetic hand learns from and responds to muscle signals

'We're giving users an extra sense'
Owl Labs' robotic prosthetic hand learns from and responds to muscle signals
Posted at 10:00 AM, Apr 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-01 11:54:23-04

CINCINNATI -- Watching a video of DENA, the prosthetic hand created by Owl Labs -- a new startup at Ocean Accelerator in Oakley -- is a little spooky.

The hand, formerly called Biotron, is shown doing delicate tasks, such as picking up a $100 bill, a set of keys and a facial tissue. Then Amjad Osman, one of Owl Lab's founders, is shown wearing the prosthetic over his left hand and making calls on a cell phone, apparently using his right hand.

Except that his right hand isn't touching the phone -- it's just gesturing, like he's playing air guitar. The prosthetic is working the phone, translating the electrical impulses in his arm into wireless signals.

"We're giving users an extra sense," he said. "We let you bypass touch and interact with technology, using your muscle signals."

DENA's stereo vision, sensors and software are designed to give it depth perception and the ability to locate and classify various objects. Its machine learning enables it to predict what kind of grip the amputee is trying to perform, and correct its finger positions to make that happen easily.

So, yeah, it's pretty cool.

If Trump had his way, they wouldn't be here

The three young men who started Owl Labs arrived at the Ocean Accelerator in March, ready to learn the business of being a startup company, along with the others in Ocean's latest class.

They would have arrived with the rest of the class in January, but they were held up by President Trump's first immigration ban, which barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

The countries included Sudan, where Owl Labs creators Osman, Omer Suliman and Ali Bashir went to college and created their business.

The men have no interest in terrorism, Osman said, but they believe there's no better place than the United States to start a business -- and the Cincinnati area, in particular, to start a medical-device business.

Ironically, one could say their first product is aimed at helping victims of violence -- Sudan's civil war, which has gone on for more than 50 years, creating a huge population of amputees in North Sudan.

For their graduation project at the University of Khartoum in 2015, the mechanical engineering students wanted to make something useful. They chose a prosthetic hand, because the existing ones don't enable users to interact well with technology, such as smart phones.

Worldwide, there are 20 million amputees, and only 1 percent can afford a robotic prosthetic, Osman said, so there's a huge opportunity for the right product. They named their company Owl Labs because they're night owls who do much of their best work after dark.

Why not stay in Sudan?

Because it's a difficult place to start a business. There's only one 3-D printer in the entire country, Osman said, so they had to wait three months to use it and print out their prototype. It's also a long wait to purchase parts from overseas, which have to come by way of Dubai.

And because there's not a strong culture of entrepreneurship in North Sudan, Suliman said, people kept getting after them to get a "real job."

They got their feet into the door of Silicon Valley by completing a two-month entrepreneurship program at Draper University last summer, before returning home briefly in November. After researching the best places in the United States for medical investment, they decided Cincinnati was the place for them, with Ocean as a gateway to the local startup community.

"A lot of people in this community understand medical devices," said David Scott, one of the business' mentors at Ocean. "There's a nice connection between their passion and something Cincinnati has expertise in."

Do they have investors?

They've received a $20,000 convertible note from Draper University, plus $50,000 from Ocean. They won about $30,000 in competitions in Sudan, and have invested about $5,000 of their own money.

One of their immediate goals is to raise more funds to finish their first product and protect their intellectual property. Scott has been working with them to refine their pitch to investors, including how to put into words their market opportunity and how moving their story is.

It's not easy, he said, when English is your second language, and your accents are unfamiliar to Americans.

"It's hard to get the right, magic word sometimes," Scott said.

What's next?

They hope to launch DENA initially in Sudan, while they wait for FDA approval in the United States. Their goal is to have 300 users within the first year of sales, with individual units selling for $6,000 apiece.

Owl Lab's long-term goal is to be the company that owns the human-to-computer interaction space. As the company refines its prototype, it's collecting data about the way people use their hands, how they position them when they start closing their fingers, and how much force they apply for various tasks.

 "We are not a prosthetics company, but a human/technology interaction company," Osman said.