In 2014, Arun Cherian returned to his home country of India to help his sister arrange her wedding. By this time, Cherian had earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Columbia University, spent four years as a research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and was pursuing his doctorate at Purdue University, where he studied the biomechanics of the human locomotion. He looked at his childhood home with the fresh perspective of someone who had spent the better part of a decade working on engineering problems.
One thing that caught his eye was rattan furniture made from rattan which is ubiquitous in South India. The piece of furniture had been in his home for many years, but with its complex geometry it remained flexible and stable, like a spring. Cherian began to wonder if the material could serve as the basis for prosthetic legs.
The idea sparked a journey that led Cherian to abandon her PhD, spend years refining her approach, and ultimately launch Rise Bionics. Today, Rise Bionics offers custom prosthetics and orthotics not only for people with missing limbs, but also for people with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and scoliosis.
Clinical trials have shown that the company’s products are comparable in quality to other leading models, while being sold for a fraction of the cost.
“Rise Bionics has grown organically from the initial idea of creating lightweight, flexible prosthetic legs out of sugarcane to now make high-quality – or even bionic – prosthetics that are affordable and accessible to everyone,” says Cherian.
During this evolution, Cherian says it has been embraced by the MIT community. Courses and initiatives run by MIT’s D-Lab have provided training, mentorship, funding, and more to help Rise Bionics get to where it is today.
Rise has built devices for more than 500 people to date, and Cherian says the company is starting to accelerate its growth across the world now that the disruption caused by the pandemic is easing.
The path hasn’t always been easy for Cherian, but he says the company’s ability to transform lives is worth it.
“What comes down to saying is that no one is planning to be amputated,” Cherian says. “Thanks to technology, we are able to help these people get their lives back as quickly as possible. A baby girl we help was born without both legs above the knees. The other day, her mother was sharing photos of her with her classmates. Looking at the photos, you couldn’t tell she was walking with two prosthetic legs; she seems to be having a busy childhood. That’s what we want for our patients: to help them get their lives back.
Defining a path
Less than a year after Cherian came up with the idea of using the cane to make prosthetics, a friend told him about D-Lab’s Annual Development and Design Summit (IDDS), which was taking place in India. this year.
During the three-week program, Cherian studied D-Lab’s design philosophy, spending about two weeks conducting interviews and defining the problem he was trying to solve before creating his product.
“You have mentors in the class, they are students and people who have been on another IDDS, and they swore by this methodology,” Cherian recalls. “I had walked around the block and I remember thinking, ‘Really?’ But, my Lord, has [D-Lab Founding Director] Amy Smith and her team have found something.
IDDS marked the beginning of a long relationship between Cherian and MIT. He then presented the problems his company was facing to the students of the D-Lab 2.729 (Design for Scale) and EC.722 (Prosthetics for the Developing World) courses. Groups of students worked on the problems during the semester, and three ended up flying to India to do a summer internship and test their ideas.
In 2016, Cherian was selected for a D-Lab Scale Ups Fellowship, which provided financial support, mentorship, and networking to help Rise Bionics scale. Cherian had started the business up to this point and calls the fellowship “very helpful in helping us get to where we are today.”
“I am extremely grateful to D-Lab and MIT,” says Cherian. “I’m not an alumni, so the fact that they’re generous enough to extend their resources to me is a testament to the fantastic culture at MIT.”
Later in 2016, a team from Rise Bionics traveled to Switzerland to participate in Cybathalon, in which athletes wearing the best prosthetics in the world compete in athletic events. Most companies make advanced devices specifically for competition — Cherian says European prosthetic giant Ossur, for example, came up with a $100,000 prosthetic leg. Nonetheless, runners wearing Rise’s $300 device won two of the three races and clocked the fastest time of the event.
Today, Rise Bionics does more than manufacture prosthetic legs. In fact, the company has developed a comprehensive workflow to fit patients with custom devices in hours instead of weeks. First, Rise is training paramedics to use its handheld scanner to take measurements of patients in their homes or at the neighborhood hospital. Then, Rise uses an algorithm to design the custom mesh that sits between the patient’s body and the device. Rise has a central manufacturing facility where it produces and ships its devices, which can be made using cane or more traditional prosthetic and orthotic materials. Cherian says Rise can produce more than 40 custom devices per week.
“It’s unheard of to be this fast, and the fit is great,” says Cherian. “Patients who have used other devices for decades are used to multiple fitting sessions spread over several days, but our fitting session takes 10 to 15 minutes, and they’re like, ‘Is that it?'”
The majority of Rise patients need prosthetic legs, but Cherian says about 40% are people with epilepsy, cerebral palsy, paralysis and other congenital conditions who benefit from orthoses (which correct problems biomechanics).
Cherian says the company’s products typically cost 30-50% of the cost of those of competitors, which creates unique scenes in the hospitals that Rise Bionics partners with. They saw a rickshaw driver coming in for a fitting followed by a wealthy patient in a Mercedes.
“We are truly proud to serve patients from corporate hospitals, five-star hospitals and community hospitals,” Cherian said. “And everyone gets the same device portfolio.”
After hearing about public hospitals struggling to provide prosthetics and orthotics to children with special needs in low-income communities during the pandemic, Rise began working with its wealthiest patients and donors to facilitate the device sponsorship. The resulting Help A Child Walk program has helped more than 90 children obtain assistive devices for free.
Rise, which currently operates only in India, has been forced to delay plans to scale up during the pandemic, but Cherian says it has treated more than 120 patients in the past two months alone, and the company s strives to establish partnerships in the Middle East, Africa, Brazil and North America.
Looking ahead, Cherian plans to use Rise’s platform to move into injury prevention — think custom insoles and seats — as well as exoskeletal suits, the subject of her doctoral research. He thinks the income from this job will help the company grow its support business.
“The goal is bionics for everyone, and we want to make it as affordable and accessible as possible,” says Cherian. “The last thing I want is to put a financial burden on any of these people. We want to be a big business, where we make money that we can use to do more good.