Adjustable walker from Case Western Reserve and Louis Stokes VA moves closer to market

Product allows users to navigate uneven surfaces, offering promise of greater independence

An adjustable walker that allows users to navigate uneven surfaces more easily has moved a step closer to reaching those who need it.

After refining the product with innovation and design firm Nottingham Spirk, Case Western Reserve University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have partnered with a Pennsylvania start-up to explore opportunities to bring it to market.

The Self-Leveling Walker (SLW) operates like a conventional walker on level surfaces. But when the user presses a button, its front legs shorten and rear legs lengthen to match the height of a step or angle of an incline for an ascent-or, in the case of a descent, does the opposite.

“Because there’s no safe way to use standard walkers on stairs or inclines, we saw an unmet need for a walker that can be adjusted at any time,” said project manager Stephanie Nogan Bailey, a biomedical engineer at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, who earned her biomedical engineering degree from Case Western Reserve in 2003. “Many individuals cannot leave a rehabilitation facility and return home if they fail to master the physically demanding strategies for using stairs, which can force admission to skilled nursing facilities or costly home adaptations.”

Photo of Ronald Triolo
Ronald Triolo

Ronald Triolo, a Case Western Reserve professor of biomedical engineering and executive director of the Louis Stokes VA’s Advanced Platform Technology Center, directed the project.

The university and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which co-own the walker’s technology, signed an 18-month option license agreement with Pennsylvania-based LevelMed Technologies. During that time, LevelMed will work to develop a business plan, evaluate commercialization prospects, and secure capital.

The walker “helps to give back a level of freedom of mobility to people who would otherwise not have it,” said Wayne Hawthorne, senior licensing manager in the university’s Technology Transfer Office.

The walker has been in development since 2012. After researchers created a prototype, they engaged Nottingham Spirk to find ways to make it more functional for users.

“Our team found a way to design the walker without a need for batteries by developing a specialized hydraulic system that is easily activated by a single finger,” said Vikki Nowak, vice president of strategy at Nottingham Spirk. “The design simplicity makes the walker even easier for patients to use.”

The effort has received funding from Case Western Reserve and the VA, and last year was selected to participate in I-Corps@Ohio, a statewide program that helps faculty, staff and students from Ohio colleges and universities to validate the market potential of technologies and launch start-up companies. Frank Zitko, also a VA biomedical engineer, is the project’s innovation specialist and headed up the I-Corps team.

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