Prior to losing an arm and a foot when he fell underneath a train in 2012, James Young went on a run pretty much every day after work. After his initial recovery period was over, and he was fitted with prosthetic limbs, Young tried running again. “It wasn’t worth the pain,” he declares. The agony felt by Young didn’t come from the injury or from the prosthetic limb itself. Rather, the socket — the cup that fits over the stump doctors created at the injury site — caused the distress. (The problem is common among many amputees.)  “Sockets are, in my opinion, kind of a nightmare,” Young says. They’re “just pain, pain, pain, essentially.”
Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems (CBAS), located in Cambridge, England, aims to solve the socket problem for good with digital technology. Its solution: an innovation called the Prosthetic Interface Device (PID), which founders Oliver Armitage and Emil Hewage describe as a kind of USB port for the body. Creating a standardized connection between an artificial limb and the body, the PID is surgically implanted at the injury site and a prosthetic limb with a matching connector is plugged directly into it. This revolutionary device is what results when entrepreneurs, surgeons, clinicians and patients collaborate using applied materials, machine learning and neuroscience. Currently in pre-clinical trials, the PID has a projected market release in 2018.
“Today, technology and data intelligence are allowing people to change the way we address and ultimately solve our most pressing social and environmental challenges,” says Tae Yoo, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Cisco. “Digitization is leading to a greater understanding of the connection and interdependency between people, process, data and things. As a company, Cisco strives to inspire, connect and invest in opportunities that accelerate global problem solving; CBAS has an innovative way of tackling this challenge.”
Current sockets pose a number of problems. The fit must be so precise that it continually has to be adjusted, and if a patient gains or loses weight, the socket will need to be refitted or replaced. Even changes in temperature can be enough to noticeably change a socket’s fit. Most patients need a new one every year or two, and because it presses against the skin, a socket can easily cause inflammation, infection and other problems.
CBAS’s device eliminates these problems, drastically improving a patient’s quality of life. Instead of hugging the exterior of the body, the PID connects directly to the skeletal system. This means that the skeleton (not soft tissue, which can easily be damaged or injured) bears the weight of the artificial limb. Connecting to bone also changes the way that the body relates to a replacement limb: “You can have this direct connection to the mechanical, solid parts of the limb, which allows for some proprioception,” or awareness of where the limb is in space, Young explains.
There’s a financial benefit as well. The existing socket-based system for attaching prosthetic limbs to the body is hugely expensive. Every single socket must be custom made and adjusted repeatedly until the fit is perfect. “It’s like someone’s trying to hand-make you some shoes, but they’re always painful, and you’re going to have to keep redoing the process,” explains Hewage.
In contrast, the PID is extremely cost-effective and low-maintenance. Ernst & Young crunched the numbers and found that Cambridge Bio-Augmentation’s PID system could lower the cost of artificial limbs by 60 percent, reducing the need for constant follow-up visits to prosthetic clinics. Any prosthetic limb can be designed to attach to the PID, and a patient can live with the same one for decades. “As an engineer, you constantly benefit from standardization,” says Armitage. “I can buy a bolt from this shop and a nut from this shop and put them together. The prosthetics industry doesn’t have that right now. Making a standardized connector, you enable the rest of the engineers to work with that and move forward and make better devices.”
The advantages of a standardized connection between the body and an artificial limb go far beyond convenience and cost savings. Thanks to some amazing advancements in robotics technology over the past few years, new high-tech bionic limbs can be controlled by patients’ minds (just like a natural limb). The PID can connect with these robotic arms or legs, creating a simple electric connection between the body’s nervous system and the artificial limb.
“It’s not just a standard mechanical connection, it’s a standard electrical connection,” says Armitage. “In order for the mass population of amputees to be able to have access to neutrally-controlled devices, you need a standardized way of communicating with that prostheses. With a PID, the interface between the biology and the engineering has already been done by our product.”
Eventually, the PID could be used to allow other types of devices beyond even the most advanced prosthetic limbs to connect to the body. “I can’t see any way that the USB connector for the body wouldn’t revolutionize the human condition,” Young says, drawing on his first-hand experience with the PID. It’s precisely that kind of blue-sky thinking that drives Hewage and Armitage to continue to innovate, pushing the potential of the PID even further.
To address today’s social and environmental challenges, collaboration and investment in innovative early-stage tech solutions is a must. Digital transformation is well underway in many industries thanks to organizations like Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems. Entrepreneurs who see challenges as opportunities waiting to be solved are already at work — creating, inspiring and helping people thrive.
This article was produced in partnership with Cisco, which believes everyone has the potential to become a global problem solver – to innovate as a technologist, think as an entrepreneur and act as a social change agent.