Andrew Hitz with the Hand of Zeus.
Courtesy of Aether Biomedical
In 2011, Jeremy Schroeder was driving a four-wheeler near Sherwood, Ohio, when he crashed 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 rapidly.
Shroeder, who was 30 at the time, waited more than an hour for emergency medical services to arrive before finally being airlifted to a nearby hospital.
When he woke up in a room across from his anxious wife, he was missing a hand.
“She says, ‘I have some bad news,'” he told CNBC in an interview, recalling the conversation.
Schroeder’s left arm was amputated about five inches below his elbow. He has four children and runs a small farm where he drives tractors, harvests crops and cares for animals. So he was determined not to let his accident slow him down.
Now, 12 years later, Schroeder wears a bionic hand designed by startup Aether Biomedical, and it’s business as usual for him. Aether’s hand, called 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” from carrying groceries to driving his truck to caring for his children.
Founded in 2018, Aether is based in Poland and its US headquarters is in Chicago. Aether works with upper limb amputees, and anyone with an amputation level between the wrist and shoulder can use their Hand of Zeus. Once patients are fitted with a prosthetic arm by a doctor, Aether’s device can attach to the extremity.
More than 200 patients use Aether’s Zeus Hand and, like other bionic hands, it works by translating electrical signals in the muscles of the arm. When a patient thinks about a grip like holding a bottle or pinching a needle, Aether’s sensors detect these electrical signals and its software converts them into actions.
“Pretty much anything you can think of, you can do,” Schroeder said. “It’s really cool what some people can do with it.”
Jeremy Schroeder with the hand of Zeus.
Courtesy of Aether Biomedical
Aether CEO Dhruv Agrawal said that the Hand of Zeus is the most powerful bionic hand on the market and it is also the only hand that can be configured remotely via an app, making a strong case for important sale for users.
It’s common for patients to need adjustments to their bionic devices, especially when learning how to use them, and this usually requires an in-person visit to a doctor’s office. But patients using Aether’s device can ask their clinician to connect to the company’s cloud platform, reconfigure grip patterns and make other adjustments remotely.
Schroeder said this feature often saves him more than two hours of driving time.
Aether also takes a unique approach to larger repairs.
The Zeus Hand is made up of seven modules that can be easily replaced in a doctor’s office, said Sarra Mullen, head of U.S. operations at Aether. She said other bionic hands have to be sent back to manufacturers for repair, which can leave patients stranded without their devices for long periods of time.
“Imagine not having your hand for weeks or even months,” Mullen told CNBC in an interview. “We now have this ability to keep the device on the patient at all times, and that’s really remarkable.”
Aether’s Hand of Zeus is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is covered by all major insurers. Aether said the cost of the Hand of Zeus would vary depending on the person. The company generates revenue, Mullen said, and so its main goal is to expand 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 United States alone, there are an estimated 800,000 to 1 million upper limb amputees, so there’s plenty of room for Aether to grow. The challenge, Agrawal said, is convincing patients who never wanted a bionic hand or who have been discouraged by devices they’ve tried before.
“If you used a device many years ago and didn’t like it, that doesn’t mean you should give it up today,” he told CNBC in an interview. “Technology is getting better.”
Given Aether’s presence in Poland, Agrawal said the company is also working to provide its devices to people injured because of the war in Ukraine. He said Aether would send its first team to the region in a few weeks and the company hoped to host between 300 and 500 people with the Hand of Zeus over the next year and a half.
Patients must practice
The hand of Zeus.
Courtesy of Aether Biomedical
If patients have never used a bionic hand before, Mullen said, it typically takes four to six weeks to learn how to comfortably use Aether’s. She said patients typically first see a prosthetist, who is the kind of doctor who fits patients with artificial limbs. They set up with the hand, then go to occupational therapy to learn how to use it.
It takes time and practice to understand how to use different grip patterns, Mullen said. But Andrew Hitz, a 61-year-old who lives about 40 miles south of Dallas, mastered the Hand of Zeus in just 10 minutes.
Hitz underwent an elective below-the-elbow amputation of his left arm in February 2019 after suffering a serious side-by-side vehicle accident years earlier. He had tried to save his hand through a number of different procedures, and his surgeon finally told him he was out of options.
“Actually, it was the best thing I ever did,” Hitz told CNBC in an interview. “I wish I had come to the conclusion that I had had it removed years ago, which would have spared me some of the agony and pain of all the surgeries I had.”
Hitz has used other bionic hands before, and he said many of them have been sitting on his shelf collecting dust. He stumbled across Aether at a trade show in Dallas this year where he tried out the hand of Zeus. He said using it for the first time was like a “ray of sunshine.”
“Within 10 minutes, I was picking up little blocks that I never mastered with that previous hand that I had for almost a year and a half,” he said.
Aether gave Hitz a helping hand for free, and he is now an ambassador for the company.
Like Schroeder, Hitz lives a very active lifestyle and runs a small farm with his wife. He takes care of chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys and much more. He said Zeus’ hand works great for holding rakes and shovels, driving his tractor, carrying food and gathering hay.
Hitz said Zeus’ hand also has a soft grip feature, meaning he can use it to scoop eggs from his chicken coop.
“If I would have tried that with my other two, it would have been crushed everywhere, eggs everywhere,” Hitz said. “So it blew me away when I went to the chicken coop, and I didn’t crush that egg.”
Of Aether’s 50 employees, Agrawal said about 75% are dedicated to research and development, so the company is always focused on the future. He said Aether was already working on next-generation devices, as well as better machine learning systems and digital training platforms.
He said that ultimately Aether’s goal is to help make bionic devices more accessible and easier to use.
“The amount of mental tax that a user has to put in to use these devices has gone down a lot with our product,” he said. “And I think that’s really critical to ensuring that these devices don’t just sit in a conference room, but are actually used by patients.”