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Rebuilding Lives With New Technology

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We sit on the precipice of amazing technologies, and we are just scratching the surface of the immense potential they can deliver.

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He's a father of four, but Brian Shaffer can only dream of what millions of parents take for granted.

He'd love to be able to walk his daughter down the aisle when she gets married someday. Or climb into the bleachers to watch his son play football. Right now, doing either would be nothing short of a miracle.

On Christmas Eve 2010, Shaffer was in a horrible car crash. It left him paralyzed from the waist down.

That's why today, Shaffer is helping develop cutting-edge high tech that helps paraplegics walk again. He's part of a test program for a new powered "exoskeleton" that functions like a robotic walking suit.

The advanced device allows people with severe spinal cord injuries to sit, stand, walk, and even climb stairs on their own. Designed for ease-of-use, the relatively light and compact system is worn over a patient's clothes. It provides a whole new level of movement, far and away better than what's currently on the market.

"My kids have started calling me 'Iron Man,'" Shaffer says-a reference to the movie by that name starring Robert Downey, Jr. as a scientist who wears a powered suit of armor that, among other things, allows him to fly.

"It's unbelievable to stand up again," Shaffer adds. "It takes concentration to use at first, but once you catch on, it not that hard. The device does all the work."

This walking suit is the brainchild of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Of course, the school isn't doing this on its own. Vanderbilt has licensed this product to a big company that has the money and the marketing muscle to make it a commercial success. And talk about a perfect fit: Parker-Hannifin (NYSE:PH) is a sprawling maker of motion and control systems.

The team believes their invention could be on the market as early as 2014. This is a great example of how the latest high-tech breakthroughs can go from the lab to the market.

Many of the best tech advances do come out of colleges. Even though we focus on the investment angle to all these stories, I often tell you about seemingly "academic" advances, because I know that many such schools actively court licensing deals with companies. Either that, or the researchers go out on their own and start new firms. These are just two of the ways in which we can invest in fascinating new technology.

The details on this device are just fantastic. The Vanderbilt team says their system features improvements in robotics, microelectronics, and motors that allow the suit to work like an external skeleton. Motors controlled by a computer drive the hip and knee joints. To maintain their balance, patients use walkers or forearm crutches.

"You can think of our exoskeleton as a Segway with legs," says Vanderbilt Professor Michael Goldfarb. "If the person wearing it leans forward, he moves forward. If he leans back and holds that position for a few seconds, he sits down. When he is sitting down, if he leans forward and holds that position for a few seconds, then he stands up."

The system weighs just 27 pounds-about half the weight of current systems. What's more, it's the only wearable robot with proven rehabilitative benefits. It incorporates something known as functional electrical stimulation (FES).
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