Lower back pain in the lumbar region affects 80% of the Western population and is the leading cause of professional absenteeism in France. Although 90% of all cases are resolved within 6 weeks, almost 2 million people each year suffer chronic lower back pain and permanent disabilities. It was in response to this public health issue that the start-up co-founded by the young engineer Antoine Nöel, Japet Medical Devices, has developed the first exoskeleton designed to relieve back pain and assist patients in their physical therapy, thereby facilitating and accelerating their recovery.
Named Atlas in reference to the son of Japet, the mythological Titan condemned by Zeus to eternally carry the sky on his back, this exoskeleton integrates spinal traction - a medical practise widely used to relieve pain - into a robotic, wearable device. Using 4 micro-motors and a full set of sensors, Atlas decompresses the spine to relieve the pain caused by excess pressure on the lumbar region. The device is used along with an application which provides the patient with targeted exercises and enables data collection to ensure proper monitoring and analysis of patients´ progress.
A clinical trial of Atlas is currently underway in Lille (France) at the Regional University Hospital Center, which finances the company, and plans are to hit the European market towards the end of 2018 after obtaining regulatory approval. Although Atlas´ initial price tag (of around 4,000€ currently) is likely to confine early adoption in large part to physical therapy clinics and medical centers, where patients can make use of the exoskeleton under medical supervision, Nöel´s team is studying options which could lower the price and allow them to market Atlas directly to consumers. Potential solutions include equipping the exoskeleton with exercises designed in the style of a "serious game" adapted for home use and negotiating agreements with health insurance providers to cover the cost of renting this innovative exoskeleton to patients, thereby boosting the effectiveness of prescribed treatments by allowing them to use Atlas at home.
Antoine and his co-founder Damien Bratic met at engineering school, where they worked together developing robotic devices for disabled children. Though they later followed different paths, with Damien specialising in neurostimulation as a solution for back pain and Antoine entering the exoskeleton field and studying robotics at MIT (US), the pair joined forces again in 2014 to found Japet Medical Devices. The start-up was incubated by an American giant in China last year and has been commended by the Special Forces division of the United States Armed Forces, which has expressed their interest in contracting Japet to equip their soldiers to facilitate transportation of heavy loads on foot.
“The solution developed by Antoine Nöel could transform the lives of thousands and thousands of people. This technology could be used for many more health applications,” according to the Innovation Expert at Agoria and jury panel member for Innovators Under 35 Europe 2017, Benjamin Minard - which is, indeed, exactly what this young French entrepreneur envisions.