Andrew Hitz with the Zeus hand.
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 in Schroeder’s arm; he was rapidly losing blood.
Shroeder, who was 30 at the time, waited more than an hour for emergency medical services to arrive before he was finally airlifted to a nearby hospital.
When he woke up in a room across from his anxious wife, Schroeder was missing a hand.
“She goes, ‘I got bad news,'” he told CNBC in an interview, recalling the conversation.
Schroeder’s left arm was amputated around five inches below his elbow. He has four kids and manages 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 the startup Aether Biomedical, and it’s business as usual for him. Aether’s hand, called the 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 carrying groceries, driving his truck or caring for his kids.
Founded in 2018, Aether is based in Poland with U.S. headquarters in Chicago. Aether works with upper limb amputees, and anyone with an amputation level between the wrist and the shoulder can use its Zeus hand. Once patients are fitted with a prosthetic socket for their arm by a doctor, Aether’s device can fasten on the end.
More than 200 patients are using Aether’s Zeus hand, and like other bionic hands, it works by translating the electrical signals in the arm muscles. When a patient thinks of a grip like holding a bottle or pinching a needle, Aether’s sensors detect these electrical signals and its software converts them into actions.
“Just about anything you can think, you can do,” Schroeder said. “It’s really neat what some people can do with it.”
Jeremy Schroeder with the Zeus hand.
Courtesy of Aether Biomedical
Aether CEO Dhruv Agrawal said the Zeus hand is the strongest bionic hand on the market, and it’s also the only hand that can be remotely configured through an app, which is a big selling point for users.
It’s common for patients to need adjustments to their bionic devices, especially as they are first learning to use them, and it usually requires an in-person visit to a doctor’s office. But patients who use Aether’s device can have their clinician log on 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 hand is made up of seven modules that can be easily replaced at 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 the manufacturers to be repaired, which can leave patients stuck without their devices for extended periods.
“Imagine not having your hand 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 truly is remarkable.”
Aether’s Zeus hand is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and it’s covered by all major insurance payers. Aether said the cost of the Zeus hand will vary depending on the person. The company generates revenue, Mullen said, so its main focus is on scaling access to its technology.
On Monday, Aether announced it closed a $5.8 million funding round led by J2 Ventures and Story Ventures. Agrawal said the funding will mainly be used to improve the company’s manufacturing process. Aether currently has a backlog of devices it needs to ship out, he added.
In the U.S. alone, there are between 800,000 and 1 million estimated upper limb amputees, so there is plenty of room for Aether to grow. The challenge, Agrawal said, is winning over patients who have never wanted a bionic hand or who have been discouraged by past devices they’ve tried.
“If you used a device many years ago and didn’t like it, that doesn’t mean that you have to give up on it today,” he told CNBC in an interview. “Technology is improving.”
Given Aether’s presence in Poland, Agrawal said the company is also working to get its devices to people who have been injured because of the war in Ukraine. He said Aether is sending its first team to the region in a few weeks, and the company is expecting to fit between 300 to 500 people with the Zeus hand over the next year and a half.
Patients need to practice
The Zeus hand.
Courtesy of Aether Biomedical
If patients have never used a bionic hand before, Mullen said, it usually takes between four to six weeks to learn how to use Aether’s comfortably. She said patients first generally see a prosthetist, which is the kind of doctor that fits patients with artificial limbs. They get set up with the hand, and then go to occupational therapy to learn to use it.
It takes time and practice to understand how to operate the different grip patterns, Mullen said. But Andrew Hitz, a 61-year-old who lives about 40 miles south of Dallas, mastered the Zeus hand in just 10 minutes.
Hitz had an elective amputation below the elbow of his left arm in February of 2019 after suffering a serious accident on a side-by-side vehicle years earlier. He had tried to save his hand through a number of different procedures, and his surgeon eventually told him that he was out of options.
“Actually, it was the best thing that I ever did,” Hitz told CNBC in an interview. “I wish I would have jumped to the conclusion of having it taken off years prior, saving me some of the agony and pain of all the surgeries that I went through.”
Hitz has used other bionic hands before, and he said many of them are sitting on his shelf and collecting dust. He happened to stumble across Aether at a trade show in Dallas this year where tried out the Zeus hand. He said using it for the first time was like a “ray of bright sunshine.”
“Literally in 10 minutes I was picking up little blocks that this previous hand that I had for almost a year and a half I just never mastered,” he said.
Aether gave Hitz a hand for free, and he is now an ambassador for the company.
Like Schroeder, Hitz lives a very hands-on lifestyle and manages a small farm with his wife. He cares for chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys and more. He said the Zeus hand works great for holding rakes and shovels, driving his tractor, carrying feed and gathering hay.
Hitz said the Zeus hand also has a soft grip feature, which means he can use it to pick up eggs from his chicken coop.
“If I would have tried that with my other two, it would have smushed all over the place, egg everywhere,” Hitz said. “So that just blew my mind when I went up to the chicken coop, and I did not crush that egg.”
Out of Aether’s 50 employees, Agrawal said around 75% are dedicated to research and development, so the company is always looking ahead to what is next. He said Aether is already working on next generation devices, as well as better machine learning systems and digital training platforms.
He said ultimately, Aether’s goal is to help make bionic devices more accessible and easier to use.
“The amount of mental taxation that a user has to put in to use these devices has decreased a lot with our product,” he said. “And I think that is really key to ensuring that these devices don’t sit in a boardroom, but are actually used by patients.”