Andrew Hitz with the hand of Jupiter.
Courtesy of Aether Biomedical
In 2011, Jeremy Schroeder was driving a four-wheeler near Sherwood, Ohio, when he ran into a stop sign he hadn’t seen as the stone path suddenly turned to asphalt. The sign left a deep gash on Schroeder’s arm. he was losing blood fast.
Shroeder, who was 30 at the time, waited more than an hour for emergency services to arrive before he was finally airlifted to a nearby hospital.
When he woke up in a room across from his worried wife, Shredder was missing an arm.
“She’s like, ‘I’ve got bad news,'” he told CNBC in an interview, recalling the conversation.
Schroeder’s left arm was amputated about five inches below the elbow. He has four children and runs a small farm where he drives tractors, harvests crops and looks after animals, so he was determined not to let his accident slow him down.
Now, 12 years later, Shredder is wearing a bionic arm designed by startup Aether Biomedical, and it’s normal for him. Aether’s hand, named Zeus, can lift up to 77 pounds and switch between 12 different customizable grip patterns in real time. Schroeder, who is now an ambassador for the company, said he uses it for “everything,” whether it’s hauling groceries, driving his truck or taking care of his kids.
Aether was founded in 2018 and is based in Poland with US headquarters in Chicago. Aether works with amputated upper limbs, and anyone with a level of amputation between the wrist and the shoulder can use Jupiter’s hand. Once patients are fitted with a prosthetic hand socket by a doctor, Aether’s device can be attached to the limb.
More than 200 patients use Aether’s Zeus hand, and like other bionic hands, it works by translating electrical signals to hand muscles. When a patient thinks about a grip such as holding a bottle or pricking a needle, Aether’s sensors detect these electrical signals and its software converts them into actions.
“Whatever you can think, you can do,” Schroeder said. “It’s pretty neat what some people can do with it.”
Jeremy Schroeder with the Hand of Jupiter.
Courtesy of Aether Biomedical
Aether CEO Dhruv Agrawal said the Zeus hand is the most powerful bionic hand on the market and is also the only hand that can be remotely adjusted via an app, which is a big selling point for users.
It is common for patients to need adjustments to their bionic devices, especially as they first learn to use them, and an in-person office visit is usually required. However, patients using Aether’s device can ask their clinician to connect to the company’s cloud-based platform and reconfigure grip patterns and make other adjustments remotely.
Schroeder said this feature often saves him more than two hours of driving.
Aether also takes a unique approach to larger repairs.
The Zeus arm consists of seven modules that can be easily replaced in a doctor’s office, said Sarra Mullen, head of US operations at Aether. He said other bionic hands have to be sent back to manufacturers for repair, which can leave patients stuck without their devices for long periods.
“Imagine not having your arm for weeks, months at a time,” Mullen told CNBC in an interview. “We have this ability now to keep the device on the patient at all times, and that’s really remarkable.”
Aether’s Zeus arm is FDA approved and covered by all major insurance carriers. Aether said the cost of Jupiter’s hand would vary by person. The company is generating revenue, Mullen said, so its main focus is on scaling access to its technology.
On Monday, Aether announced that it closed a $5.8 million funding round led by J2 Ventures and Story Ventures. Agrawal said the funding will primarily be used to improve the company’s manufacturing process. Aether currently has a backlog of devices to ship, he added.
In the US alone, there are an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people with upper limb amputation, so there is plenty of room for Ether to grow. The challenge, Agrawal said, is to win over patients who have never wanted a bionic arm or who have been discouraged by previous devices they’ve tried.
“If you used a device many years ago and didn’t like it, that doesn’t mean you should abandon it today,” he told CNBC. “Technology is improving.”
Given Aether’s presence in Poland, Agrawal said the company is also working to deliver its devices to people traumatized by the war in Ukraine. He said Aether is sending its first team to the region in a few weeks, and the company expects to fit 300 to 500 people with Hand of Zeus in the next year and a half.
The hand of Zeus.
Courtesy of Aether Biomedical
If patients have never used a bionic arm before, Mullen said, it usually takes four to six weeks to learn how to comfortably use Aether’s. He said patients first generally see a prosthetist, which is the kind of doctor who fits patients with artificial limbs. They are fitted by hand and then go to occupational therapy to learn to use it.
It takes time and practice to figure out how to handle the different grip patterns, Mullen said. But Andrew Hitz, a 61-year-old who lives about 40 miles south of Dallas, mastered Jupiter’s hand in just 10 minutes.
Hitch had an elective below-the-elbow amputation of his left arm in February 2019 after a serious side-by-side accident years earlier. He had tried to save his arm through a number of different procedures and the surgeon finally told him he had no options.
“Actually, it was the best thing I ever did,” Hitch told CNBC in an interview. “I wish I had come to the conclusion that I would have had it removed years ago, saving me some of the agony and pain of all the surgeries I went through.”
Hitch has used other bionic arms in the past, and he said many of them are sitting on his shelf collecting dust. He happened to meet Aether at a trade show in Dallas this year, where he tried Jupiter’s hand. He said using it for the first time was like a “ray of bright sunshine”.
“Literally within 10 minutes I was picking up little blocks that this previous hand that I had for almost a year and a half had never mastered,” he said.
Aether gave Hitz a hand for free and is now an ambassador for the company.
Like Shredder, Hitch lives a very practical lifestyle and runs a small farm with his wife. Takes care of chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys and more. He said that Jupiter’s hand works great for holding rakes and shovels, driving his tractor, carrying feed and making hay.
Hitch said Jupiter’s hand also has a soft-grip feature, meaning he can use it to pick eggs from his coop.
“If I tried it with my other two, it would have been squished all over, egg everywhere,” Hitch said. “That blew my mind when I went up to the coop and didn’t crack that egg.”
Of Aether’s 50 employees, Agrawal said about 75 percent are dedicated to research and development, so the company is always looking ahead to what’s next. He said Aether is already working on next-generation devices, as well as better machine learning systems and digital training platforms.
Ultimately, he said, Aether’s goal is to help make bionic devices more affordable and easier to use.
“The amount of mental tax a user has to take to use these devices has been greatly reduced with our product,” he said. “And I think that’s really the key to making sure that these devices are not in a conference room, but actually being used by patients.”