Networking: the mother of invention

Infant kicking data being captured for the "second skin"

Two or three years ago, seeing all the children in wheelchairs coming to Children’s Hospital, I asked myself whether I might be able to contribute something tangible to help restore their mobility. A psychologist by training, I had published some academic articles on how young children become independently mobile. But I’ve also always liked to build things.

It became clear that anything I wanted to build would require skills I didn’t have. I envisioned a form-fitting, electronic garment that a child with a brain injury could wear to assist his or her biological muscles, teaching the brain how the body should move. How on earth could I get the money to build such a garment, and who could help me?

I was able to get a $10,000 seed grant from the Boston-based Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT), and that is where social networking began to help me realize my dream. At a café, I serendipitously bumped into Don Ingber, a researcher in the Vascular Biology Program at Children’s who later went on to found the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Don, excited by the possibilities, drove me across the Charles River to meet Radhika Nagpal, a Harvard computer scientist.

Radhika and her students were building robots with a new kind of computer programming that provides the type of distributed control – with independent components able to make their own decisions — that is characteristic of biological systems. Radhika introduced me to Rob Wood, a Harvard engineering professor who has developed a technology that we will use to fabricate what we now call the “second skin” — an electronic textile with embedded synthetic muscles to assist the patients’ weakened biological muscles.

We realized that we also needed a network of sensors in the fabric that could identify when, during a baby’s movement, the synthetic muscles should be activated. I contacted an engineer at Draper Laboratory, Marc Weinberg, a world expert on tiny sensors that can detect subtle changes in motion, who I’d met some years earlier while working on another project. Marc also got excited about the idea, and through his Draper contacts, I was introduced to Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautical and astronautical engineering at MIT. Dava had developed what some in NASA were hailing as the next-generation space suit, that astronauts might wear when they go to Mars. Her ideas on the design of materials that cooperate with the human body during movement are now part of the second skin design.

I soon realized that we needed some help in measuring and quantifying the complex behaviors involved in movement, so I enlisted my old graduate school friends Ken Holtt and Elliot Saltzman at Boston University, who are experts on human movement.

We all decided that we needed to apply for federal funds to get started. At around this time, Don Ingber announced the Wyss Institute, with Radhika Nagpal and Rob Wood as core faculty, and offered $50,000 to support the second skin project. Then Elliot Saltzman told me about a new National Science Foundation program that was inviting proposals for cyberphysical systems, a cool name for exactly what we wanted to build. Our newly formed team submitted a proposal for a Programmable Second Skin to Re-educate Injured Nervous Systems. In September, 2009, we were awarded $1.5 million for the first round of research.

Our research is now being conducted in a new motion-capture laboratory at Wyss, where we’re starting to document the normal motion of infants’ legs, for programming into the fabric. By collaborating across institutional boundaries, we’re also setting a dream in motion.