Chicago company Coapt builds technology powering bionic hands, gives amputees fully operational prosthetic arms

ByZach Ben-Amots WLS logo
Friday, March 6, 2020
Chicago company Coapt builds technology powering bionic hands, gives amputees fully operational prosthetic arms
Coapt is a Chicago-based company that builds the technology powering bionic hands and prosthetic limbs for amputees.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Retired Sergeant First Class Glen Lehman didn't initially know that he had lost an arm after an explosive dislodged the door of his armored car, while he was on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq.

"I looked down at my arm and I could see it, because it was still partially attached," Lehman said.

"I didn't realize I had lost my arm until three days later, when I woke up at the hospital."

Lehman had never met an amputee before, and he had no idea what life changes to expect. After six months in the hospital, he left with a right arm amputated just above the elbow and only his non-dominant left hand.

Years later, though, Lehman regained the use of both hands through developments in the field of human-machine interface technology.

Lehman is now an ambassador for Coapt, a Chicago based company specializing in the technology that powers bionic arms and hands.

"Coapt doesn't make anything we see. We're that smart electronic brain that sits inside, sort of under the hood," said CEO and Co-Founder Blair Lock.

"We've worked hard for decades, frankly, at making it appear magic. So the user doesn't really have to think about the technical details of what's happening under the hood."

Coapt encodes circuit boards with embedded algorithms that connect muscles in each user's arm to movable parts of the prosthetic limb, including elbows, wrists, and fingers.

The technology learns each users muscle pattern to understand movements that translate into different motions. Open hand, close fist, point, spin wrist. Each movement correlates to different muscles and signals that Coapt uses to operate prosthetic elements.

Amputee Kaylin Wallenberg is hoping to become a Coapt user in the future. She lost her right arm in a lawn mower accident when she was three years old, and has been living with only one hand for most of her life.

She is currently negotiating with insurance to try and get coverage. Fully operational prosthetic limbs remain cost-prohibitive for many, especially when private insurers refuse to cover the cost.

According to Locke, the hardware and technology of a bionic arm can combine to cost between $30,000 - 200,000, depending on all the necessary parts. Coapt doesn't make any hardware, which is the costliest element.

"To the insurance companies, even though the single item may have a significant sticker price, the volume of what they're seeing and reimbursing are very low," Lock said.

"So the math, the economics do work out in their favor when they do understanding."

Although the technology for bionic hands has existed for years - and Coapt gives unprecedented power to its users - users still often need to convince their insurers that coverage is necessary.

As a military veteran, Lehman has had all costs for his arm covered.

Wallenberg is hopeful that her insurance will come through soon, but has no timetable.

"For me it's more of a quality of life thing, I can just be so much more efficient with (the bionic hand)," Wallenberg said. "I can't wait for it to change my life."