By Kristy Dorsey

Technology start-up BioLiberty is aiming to roll out a robotic glove to help MS sufferers and others get a grip on daily tasks after securing space within the Edinburgh Business School Incubator.

The company, founded by four electronic engineering students in March of last year, is hoping to complete a second prototype version of its glove within the next few months that will give occupational therapists and other healthcare professionals an opportunity to provide feedback on its performance. Funded to date by various business competition awards totalling approximately £20,000, the fledgling firm is considering its options for an initial seed capital round later this year.

The glove is aimed at the 2.5 million people in the UK who suffer from hand weakness because of lost muscle mass as a result of ageing or illnesses such as Multiple sclerosis (MS), motor neurone disease and carpal tunnel syndrome. The technology is expected to help with a wide range of daily tasks such as opening jars, driving, or pouring a cup of tea, allowing users to live independently with less need for care support.

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“Covid has highlighted how big of an issue living independently is, especially in circumstances where people can’t get the formal and informal care that they need,” co-founder Ross O’Hanlon said.

The glove uses Electromyography (EMG) to measure electrical activity in response to a nerve’s stimulation of the muscle to determine a user’s intention to grip an object. It then uses an algorithm to convert that intention into force, helping the user to hold an item or apply the necessary pressure to complete an activity.

The idea for the glove came from Mr O’Hanlon’s aunt in Northern Ireland – where Mr O’Hanlon is originally from – who was finding it increasingly difficult to change the television channel or drink a glass of water because of her MS.

“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,” he said.

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“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 ageing by enabling individuals to live more comfortably in their own homes for longer.”

Mr O’Hanlon, 24, first started working on the project with fellow electronic engineering student Rowan Armstrong while both were studying for their Masters degree at the University of Edinburgh. They were soon joined by friends Shea Quinn and Conan Bradley, students at Queen’s University Belfast.

During lockdown, each has been responsible for specific aspects of development that has resulted in an initial working model of the glove. They aim to integrate their work into a full prototype within a few months of lockdown restrictions easing.

“We have got the technology, and we have proved the concept in a lab environment,” Mr O’Hanlon said. “We are going to start refining this and then put it into the environments where it is going to be used.”

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Subject to necessary regulatory approvals, BioLiberty will plans to initially target the UK and US markets.

“The plan is to get investment and expand the team, but the main focus right now is to get the product to the people who will be using it so we can get their feedback and opinions,” he added.

When the founders can physically reconvene, they will be based out of the Edinburgh Business School (EBS) Incubator set up in 2018 by Heriot-Watt University. BioLiberty was one of seven start-ups invited as part of the annual intake at the ESB, which is currently home to 20 young firms.

Incubator manager Kallum Russell said the primary focus this past year has been on minimising the impact of the Covid pandemic on its fledgling businesses, with seminars and networking events moved to online outlets.

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