Simone Braunstein: Making Soft Robotics More Accessible
From LEGO League champ to robotics company CEO, this Harvard freshman is making an early mark in the field of minimally invasive robotics surgery.
The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair — the world’s largest such competition for pre-college students — generates entries from 1,000 budding scientists and engineers hailing from 75 countries. In the 2016 competition, New York City’s Simone Braunstein stole the show and took the top prize in the Robotics and Intelligent Machines category. Her entry: a high-tech glove that provides surgeons a sense of touch when using robotics.
Since then, Braunstein, now a freshman at Harvard University, founded a company called Paradox Robotics that assembles soft robotics control boards — the same type she used to innovate that glove. In the past, users had to acquire parts such as pumps and pneumatic cables themselves — a process that often took months. Paradox Robotics takes on that sourcing. It then assembles the boards and ships them via FedEx for arrival in a fraction of the time.
Access recently connected with Braunstein to learn more about what inspired her innovations and what she has in mind next.
ACCESS: Sources tell us your soft robotics journey began with a LEGO League, right?
SIMONE BRAUNSTEIN: Yes. The first time I ever did robotics was at the Johns Hopkins CTY (Center for Talented Youth) Summer Program, and I took an NXT robotics class. NXT was a product developed by LEGO, and it is essentially the brain of the robot. You then use LEGO pieces to build the elements: motors and sensors and connector pieces. I honestly fell in love with it right away.
ACCESS: So what did that lead to?
S.B.: I did a FIRST LEGO League for two years, and my team went to the World Festival championships one of those years, which was an unbelievable experience. And then my team and I switched to FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC), which is the next level up. The last year we did FTC, we went to the World Festival championships again. That’s when I decided I wanted to move into doing research at the university level. So, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years [of high school], I had reached out to a professor from Cornell University working in high-level control systems. And what I ended up doing was bridging work being done with her lab and the lab of another professor, who was working in soft robotics.
My project combined a soft robot — which is inherently difficult to control and difficult to predict because you don’t know how the environment will influence it and you’re not exactly sure how it’s behaving — with a high-level control system. So, the point of that was to take the unpredictable soft robot and the predictable control system so that you could guarantee a verifiable outcome.
From that position, I got referred for the next summer to work at Harvard University. And the reason interestingly came from something I had learned while at my FIRST LEGO League competition, a multi-stage competition I participated in back in seventh grade. And for one of my years, the topic of the research was healthcare, and we looked into minimally invasive robotics. One thing we found out that was suboptimal was that surgeons did not have any haptic, or touch, feedback.
ACCESS: What exactly does that mean?
S.B.: If a surgeon is operating inside of your body, they can’t actually feel how much pressure they’re applying. I saw an opportunity to give surgeons more feedback when they operate. We actually had the ability to use the one robot doing minimally invasive robotic surgical procedures. Obviously, they didn’t let us use it on people, but we used it on Tootsie Rolls, and the experience is similar. I very distinctly remember slicing through a Tootsie Roll and not even knowing that I’d done it. Obviously, surgeons are trained better than kids. But the point still stuck with me: that you cannot feel how much pressure you’re applying.
ACCESS: What did that realization prompt in you?
S.B.: So, kind of on a whim when I was at Harvard, I looked back at the surgical field to see if people hadn’t yet advanced the haptic capabilities of minimally invasive robots, and I was surprised to see that haptic feedback was not yet available to robotic surgeons. So people had been working on haptics at Stanford and MIT and Harvard, as well. But no one had implemented an end effector or tool that goes inside the body to do surgery that could provide haptic feedback. That was what I set out to do. And I decided I wanted to do it with soft robots because naturally they’re able to conform and they don’t apply excessive amounts of pressure.
ACCESS: Fascinating! Describe how you did it.
S.B.: Basically, there’s a control glove that the users wear and then the end effector, or the pink soft robot, that can be controlled. So I bend my finger and the robot can bend to the exact positioning of my finger. And then, if the glove comes into contact with an object, there’s a force sensor on the end of the robot that can measure the amount of pressure it’s applying to the object and relay that pressure back to me.
ACCESS: A family experience helped motivate your development of this glove, right?
S.B.: It did. My grandmother has mitral valve prolapse, which is an issue with the heart. It required open heart surgery, and it was sad to see her relegated to a couch for eight months. She had a very invasive procedure for something I thought could be done in a more efficient and safe way that would also allow her to retain a much higher quality of life after the procedure. A low percentage of procedures use minimally invasive robotics surgery technology. If robotic surgery could be tailored to additional surgical procedures successfully, thousands more lives each year might be saved. But there are ways in which the technology can be improved, and I thought something like this could add to the capability of soft robotics and the quality of life of patients.
ACCESS: From there, you started a robotics company — and you sell a control board, right? Did you develop that, too?
S.B.: The control board that Paradox Robotics sells is designed by researchers at Harvard University — actually the same group of researchers that I worked for when I worked at Harvard. In the past, you had to buy all of your components from separate distributors, and the wait times were up to eight weeks for some of the parts. Obviously, that’s not convenient when you’re in a research lab or hospital and you’re trying to figure something out quickly and transition into this new amazing technology as fast as you can. So what Paradox Robotics does is it buys all the parts from individual producers in the U.S. and China. We take those parts and we put them all into one kit and then send it to you, so it’s a fully engineered turnkey resource for makers, researchers, engineers, students and teachers.
ACCESS: You’ve already accomplished so much, but you must have ideas for what you’ll take on next.
S.B.: Three things come to mind. The first one is that I’ve had extremely high international demand for the soft robotics toolkit, but we’re not able to currently sell internationally for a variety of reasons. So I’m thinking about reaching out to someone from the Harvard Business School or someone from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to see if they would like to work together to expand the company into the rest of the world. Another focus is to lower the price of the toolkit. Right now, we sell it at $959, at cost, which means we don’t make a profit. And I do this to make it accessible to as many people as possible, because I think that soft robotics is a remarkable technology that has a real capability to change things for the better. So I’d like to work toward lowering the cost. And third, as far as the next five or 10 years, I’m definitely interested in starting another company. I’m not sure what it will be just yet, but I think probably something in robotics or computer science. I have an internship at BAE, the weapons and defense company, this summer. I’m hoping it will give me a better computer science background and a stronger computer science capability as well as expose me to some potential new business ideas. It’s in Burlington, Massachusetts, a 30-minute drive from where I live. I’m actually a New Yorker who has a driver’s license, so I’ll be driving there myself.
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