ROBOTIC MOBILITY DEVICE CHANGES THE WAY PEOPLE WITH WALKING DISABILITIES MOVE IN THE WORLD
Forget flying cars, personal jetpacks and billionaire rocket junkets. If you want to see the future, look no further than the Tek RMD, a robotic mobility device.
At the Los Angeles Abilities Expo in March 2022, a man named Andre waited in a line of others in wheelchairs for his chance for a demo. He followed a few simple instructions and was quickly lifted into a fully standing position and navigated about the convention hall with a joystick. When asked, “Fun, right?” he responded with genuine emotion.
“This makes my mind see clearer. I’ve only been in a wheelchair for five years; it’s still kind of new. This is a comfort feeling. Things look different from up here. It’s a different perspective. Perspective is everything.”
Chris Tihansky ’95 is the CEO of Matia Robotics, which manufactures and distributes the Tek RMD. He says that standing has many proven health benefits for those who use a wheelchair, such as improved circulation, alleviation of pressure to certain areas of the body and can have profound psychological impacts on patients like Andre.
“The device is sized for the individual patient,” he says. “This product is well-designed and well-engineered.”
He’s got the background to back up that assertion. He knew from the time he was in high school that he wanted to go into biomedical engineering. When it came time for college, most universities did not offer biomedical engineering as a major, so Tihansky earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Lehigh University and went on to receive his master’s in biomedical engineering from Drexel University. He decided to pursue an MBA at USD a few years later, which rounded out his skillset and made him perfectly suited for his current role.
“I really liked the idea of trying to find engineering solutions for clinical issues,” he explains. “I’m most comfortable in the business role working with engineers and physicians and the financial and legal aspects of business. My career took a lot of twists and turns over the course of time, but this is where I have the most enjoyment.”
Founded in 2012 in Istanbul, Matia Robotics received FDA clearance for the Tek RMD in 2016, established a U.S. facility and had its full commercial launch in 2018. In 2020, the second FDA clearance was granted, and in 2022, the company launched a second-generation iteration of the system. Now with distribution partners in 10 countries it’s poised to continue to grow and make a real difference.
Witness a video by user and disability advocate Karen Roy (@LifePossibleKarenRoy) on Instagram, in which her poodle barks excitedly as she uses the hydraulic lift of the Tek RMD to rise from a seated position to standing, with the caption, “It’s easier than you think!” An impressed viewer commented, “One day I would like to own one. Standing is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
Given that there are as many as 3.3 million people in the U.S. who are wheelchair bound, it’s not surprising that people are enthusiastic about ways to make the world more welcoming to the differently abled. That said, the Tek RMD is not for everyone. It’s ideal for paraplegics or those with compromised walking and standing ability; however, good upper limb and hand function is necessary.
“There are a lot of clinical benefits to standing,” explains Tihansky. “And the psychological impact of being able to go from a seated to a standing position and meet your world eye-to-eye with others and be able to be part of the conversation is a really important aspect of our technology,” he says.
In action, the device is impressive. A remote control summons it and the user can get on board from either a wheelchair or a sitting position on a chair or a bed. Boarding is done from the back, avoiding awkward or dangerous transfers. The person then stands up on their own by pulling the handlebars, a gesture described by Matia Robotics for their second-generation model, which has an electric lift, as “just the right amount of help from the product.”
The person can then freely move around their environment while standing — with their hands free — allowing them a significant amount of freedom to perform daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning and conversing with others at eye-level. It even allows users to lower themselves to a convenient height to reach things on low shelves and then easily return to a standing position.
“Our device has a very narrow footprint,” Tihansky notes. “This allows you to navigate space indoors in your kitchen, your bathroom, your living room, easily.”
Not surprisingly, the Tek RMD is not inexpensive, with a base model running about $20,000. “The cost is not insignificant, but our device is less than half of what a fully standup powered wheelchair would cost,” he explains.
Bill Winchester — a firefighter who had a biking accident and is the first American to test out the device — is an enthusiastic proponent. “It really gives you a boost of confidence to be at somebody else’s level again,” he says, in a video featuring him zipping around outside using the company’s new outdoor kit. “I have plenty of motion on here; this is actually fun. This would be a great way to coach the boys, to get back on the field where you can teach your kids something.”
Tihansky finds great satisfaction in the path his career has taken. When asked what advice he’d give to others, he’s quick to answer. “Your career doesn’t always go in a straight trajectory. Sometimes it zigs and zags, but — as long as you’re always learning and always being challenged — that’s an important thing to remember as you’re navigating your path in the world.” —Julene Snyder
Learn more at matiarobotics.com.
Above photo of Matia Robotics CEO Chris Tihansky by Keith Fearnow.