Paralympian Rory Cooper drives innovation for people with disabilities

August 2021

By Kathryn Carrara, freelance writer

Dr. Rory Cooper is the founder and director of the Human Engineering Research Labs (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh and Department of Veteran Affairs in the United States. From ergonomic push rims (a patented technology that reduces upper extremity pain and injury in wheelchair users) on wheelchairs to robots to assist with lifts and transfers, home automation and prosthetics, there’s no stopping Dr. Cooper – Paralympian, serial inventor, army veteran, engineer, marathon racer. Dr. Cooper discusses his ground-breaking work and the importance of intellectual property (IP) in bringing it to the market.

Dr. Rory Cooper, Paralympian, army veteran, engineer, marathon racer and serial inventor of multiple assistive technologies from ergonomic push rims on wheelchairs to robots to assist with lifts and transfers, home automation and prosthetics. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Cooper)

What exactly is human engineering?

Human engineering is a way to get technology and engineering involved in healthcare and community participation, and to remind everyone that people with disabilities are people. At HERL, we aim to improve the quality of life and participation of people with disabilities through engineering and technology.

When we started in 1994, people with disabilities were often not treated equally by society. We’re making progress. We use advanced engineering and research to improve the mobility and function of people with disabilities so they can fully contribute to and participate in society.

Participatory action design and engineering (PADE) is at the center of our work. People with disabilities are engaged in all aspects of our research, invention and innovation.

Rory Cooper wins “gold” at the 2021 US National Veterans Wheelchair Games using the chair that he and his colleagues invented and built for the sport. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Cooper)

What are some key areas that need attention?

There is still a lot to do in relieving pressure injuries and in developing technology that allows people to live at home and to work. Home assistance systems and mainstream technologies are helping people with disabilities. Take my van. In the past, I would have had to modify it, but now most of the assistive aids I need are in place because today nearly everyone wants the convenience of opening doors at the push of a button. The mainstreaming of assistive technologies is a huge opportunity to create a more inclusive environment, and it's important for people with disabilities to create and influence these new technologies.

Are HERL's inventions taken up by industry?

Yes, once they are patented, a good number of our inventions are adopted by industry - we have a strong track record. HERL is a very diverse organization with many people with disabilities. We're well connected to the community nationally and worldwide. We work closely with people with disabilities to identify real issues they face and work with them to create solutions. Our priorities are based on user needs, our capabilities and the impact we can make.

In the 1990s, for example, we solved the cross brace breaking problem that had affected almost every manual wheelchair in the world. By sharing that technology royalty-free, millions of people were able to benefit from it.

Then there’s our Natural Fit and Surge push rim, the most successful ergonomic push rims in the world and one of the first to be commercialized. Around 300,000 of them have been sold, drastically reducing pain and injury among manual wheelchair users.

In the 1990s, we solved the cross-brace breaking problem that had affected almost every manual wheelchair in the world. By sharing that technology royalty-free, millions of people were able to benefit from it.

With our Virtual Seating Coach machine learning hardware and software, we chose a different path. We licensed it to a global company, Permobil. They integrated it into their range of power wheelchairs, which enabled them to differentiate their products from their competitors while also helping people with disabilities to manage the risk of developing pressure injuries or lymphedema (leg swelling).

Why is diversity important?

I am a strong proponent of diversity. Heterogeneity is the key to innovation. At HERL most people are from an underrepresented group within science, whether through disability or ethnicity, gender or culture.

Diversity is important because it offers various perspectives. If you have a diverse group working together, you can devise multiple options and solve problems that might not otherwise be possible.

Heterogeneity is the key to innovation.

How does machine learning work in wheelchairs?

A wheelchair with machine learning capabilities coaches people on how to achieve maximum benefit and augments instruction that, otherwise, would only be provided by a clinician. The system gives virtual rewards, like a smiley face, and helps users follow pain and pressure management guidance.

It generates data and means companies like Permobil can monitor and predict users' behavior and help prevent health issues. They can also let wheelchair users know when their battery needs replacing. This is critical given the economic and health impacts that users can experience if their technology fails.

What are the hottest areas in accessibility engineering?

The virtual seating machine learning hardware and software developed
by HERL coaches people and helps them follow pain and pressure
management guidance from their clinicians.
(Photo: Courtesy of Rory Cooper)

The three most dynamic areas are machine learning, robotics and the integration of the needs of people with disabilities into mainstream technologies. Take the smart phone as an example. On a given day, we may each buy identical phones, but within days your phone and my phone will be very different, depending on the apps we download.

At first, smart phones weren't compatible with the needs of people with disabilities. Now they are huge enablers for almost everyone. In some ways, a deaf teenager today is less impaired than ten years ago, as all teenagers are texting these days. Accessibility engineering is not only about tailoring products and services to the needs of people with disabilities, but also about making platform technologies, like the smart phone, which can be customized within a reasonable timeframe and at scale.

It’s really important to stay on top of all the emerging new technologies and to collaborate with companies, in particular, to get them to hire employees with disabilities who can think more broadly about how they perform their work. Amazon's robotic workstation, for example, which we have been working on, could be a big-scale opportunity for all employees, not just for wheelchair users. Many people with disabilities have little or no work record, so even entry level jobs are important to start to build a resume. There’s no reason why other companies shouldn’t follow suit.

Our aim is not to make money from our IP, but to protect the fact that we created it and to be able to license it so it reaches the market.

You have over 25 patents in wheelchair technology already, and more to come. What role does intellectual property play in your work?

Intellectual property is critical to get inventions commercialized. A product won’t go to market if a company can’t make money from it. Even a not-for-profit organization like HERL needs protection to ensure that our inventions eventually help people. Our aim is not to make money from our IP, but to protect the fact that we created it and to be able to license it so it reaches the market. Businesses bring products to the marketplace, which is how people gain access to them and can ultimately benefit from them.

Rory Cooper (center) with his mentees, Dr. Jongbae Kim (left, in power wheelchair), Sivashankar Sivakanthan (center, to the left of Dr. Cooper), and Dr. Dženan Džafić (right of Dr. Cooper in power wheelchair); along with Dr. Kim’s mentees. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Cooper)

How does IP support researchers and innovators?

The main benefit is that you are recognized as the creator of a new invention, which you can protect with IP rights. Securing IP protection is critical for funding as it demonstrates novelty and potential impact. Every investor, including charitable foundations and government organizations, wants to know what impact their investment will have on the target population.

When you can report on how your patents and trademarks are being used, investors can see how many products you have developed, the problems they solved and their impact on the wellbeing of users. Ergonomic push rims are an example. These devices have improved the health and well-being of numerous users and have generated significant financial savings for the healthcare system. That would not have been possible without protecting the IP.

How would you like to see the IP system evolve?

The way the system currently works, you have to secure IP rights in every country in which you want to protect your invention. People generally get patent protection in the largest markets, but that doesn’t mean someone can’t manufacture and sell the product in countries where the IP is not protected. That can be challenging.

Global agreements that build on the Patent Cooperation Treaty, for example, and that operate like the post office – where you put a stamp on a letter in one country at a cost tailored to local income levels, and then it can be delivered all around the world – would be helpful. With such a system, you would file a patent in your home country, and it would be recognized − and your IP would be protected − worldwide, and no one would be able to manufacture and sell your invention without first securing a license.

What project are you currently working on?

Video: Rory Cooper and his team at HERL have developed the recently patented MeBot, the first ever robotic wheelchair capable of climbing steps and mounting curbs on its own.

We currently have around 75 ongoing projects. They’re all very exciting. We recently concluded assisting with the Mobility Unlimited Challenge, and have started working on making autonomous vehicles and transportation systems more accessible. We’re identifying means to ensure that people with disabilities benefit from these advances and are included in the design, development and deployment processes.

Rory Cooper (right) with former Congressman Keith Rothfus (left) with the MEBot (Mobility Enhancement Robotic Wheelchair), which was recently awarded a US patent. Rory Cooper holds more than 25 patents for various assistive technologies. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Cooper)

We’re excited to be leading this effort supported by the US Department of Transportation and working with partners such as the Toyota Mobility Foundation, Hyundai, Waymo, Paralyzed Veterans of America, National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, and Easterseals, Inc. We hope to guide standards, design and research that will lead to inclusive products and services.

Tell us about your experience of the Paralympic Games in Seoul?

Rory Cooper features in the USPTO's Inventor Trading
Card Series. “It’s awesome to inspire kids around
the world to become inventors,” says Rory Cooper.
(Photo: Courtesy of Rory Cooper)

It was awesome. 1988 was the first time the Paralympics and Olympics were held at the same place and in the same venue, which meant we got some of the recognition of Olympic athletes. The competition and mass support for para-sport was tremendous.

Are you still involved with the Paralympics?

The Paralympic movement has long been and remains an important part of my life and has had a tremendous impact on the world. I am on the Sports Science Working Group of the International Paralympic Committee. My inventions, including steering compensators and fenders on racing chairs, have been in use in the Paralympics for over 25 years now. Some of HERL's new technologies are being used for wheelchair racing, hand cycling, wheelchair dance and table tennis. I've invented a wheelchair optimized for table tennis and one for dance, with a patent pending, and am focusing on making new wheelchair technologies accessible and affordable for low -income countries.

Sport and technological development in sport have always been an important part of my life. Athletes are often early adopters of technology. They know their bodies and they know that technology can improve their performance, so you can work well with them.

Athletes have benefitted from the data-logging technologies that we’ve developed, as well as the SMARTWheel1 used to help optimize positioning and performance. The chair I am sitting in, for example, is for daily use now, but back in the 1980s it was considered a racing chair. The craft of fitting to the body and making peoples’ lives better has moved from high-level para-sport to the mainstream.

You were recently featured in the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Inventor Trading Card Series. Why are such initiatives important?

It’s awesome to inspire kids around the world to become inventors. Many of them might not think it's an option. The cards are great fun; I take cards with me wherever I go. The best thing about them is that they feature people in all walks of life, including people like me who develop technologies for people with disabilities. It's really important to recognize people with disabilities working in creating technology. It also brings much needed attention to the field of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology.

What is your greatest accomplishment to date?

My greatest accomplishment is the creation of HERL, the technologies we have created, the science we have produced and the people we have trained. I like to think that we have inspired more inventors and scientists around the world to see people with disabilities everywhere on an equal footing.

The big dream is to highlight the importance of inclusion, and for people with disabilities to be treated with dignity, respect, and to be afforded the opportunity to pursue their dreams. I have been working on this for a while, and the trading card has given me another platform to contribute. The cards help explain the importance of inventors and innovation – and of inclusion.

Footnotes

1"SMARTWheel: From concept to clinical practice." Prosthetics and orthotics international 33, no. 3 (2009): 198-209.

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