Robot elbow launches a business

With support from entrepreneurial competitions and programs, a UCalgary biomedical engineering student turns his invention into an entrepreneurial endeavour.

By Jennifer Allford
May 2017


When Jacob George and his teammates from the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program walked into a make-a-thon in Cochrane last summer, he thought they’d build something cool and end up helping someone out. What the MSc student didn’t know is that the Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) event would be just a first step in his education in entrepreneurship.

“The format of the event is somebody who knows someone with a disability is on one side and a team of engineers is on the other side, and they get matched together,” says George. That’s how he met Calvenn Tsuu. “His father-in-law had a stroke in rural China and it’s hard to get access to health-care facilities so we wanted to build something to help him do his rehab at home.”

The team created a robotic elbow device that helps stroke patients stretch, move and strengthen their arms, because most people who have a stroke suffer arm impairment. “We made up our own individual designs and realized that they all kind of sucked, but there were parts that were good, so we made an amalgamation that ended up being our prototype,” says George. “Then we went to a machine shop and stayed there for three days and just built this thing from zero to 100.”

A prototype in hand, the team — Isaac Acosta and Riley Booth, both BME MSc students, along with George; Kartikeya Murari, associate professor at Schulich School of Engineering; Dr. Sean Dukelow of the Cumming School of Medicine, and Tsuu, a mechanical engineer — competed in the Tenet i2c competition at the Cumming School of Medicine.


UCalgary biomedical engineering student Jacob George and his Re-able robotic arm.
UCalgary biomedical engineering student Jacob George and his Re-able robotic arm. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary.

“They were up against experienced professors with hundreds of thousands of dollars of seed money and they made it to the final round,” says Kathryn Simone, a BME PhD student and organizer of Calgary’s TOM event (the only one in Canada). “It’s really impressive that they started off with a really technical project but it quickly became an entrepreneurial endeavour.”

TENET i2c taught George about starting a business, marketing and that branding fundamental — having an easily pronounceable company name. “We needed something to fill in on a form. It was a few minutes before the deadline.” So they combined rehab and able for “Rehable” but have since dropped the H, for “Re-able.” 

They also received clear, simple goals for building a business. “That’s the scariest thing as an entrepreneur because you just don’t know what to do next,” says George. “I always wanted to be an entrepreneur but I had no idea how or what to do.” He’s learning fast. The team is in the Summer Incubator Program at the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, participated in the Startup Showcase and came in second in this year’s GSA Innovation Awards.

George will finish his MSc in about a year. He’s using high-resolution computed tomography to study how ankle strength may determine whether someone is likely to suffer a spinal fracture. “He’s a versatile guy and a pleasure to have in the lab,” says Steven Boyd, his supervisor and the director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health.

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