TWIICE is a Swiss startup from Lausanne and an EPFL spin-off. The product is a lower limb exoskeleton that enables paraplegic people to stand up and walk again. A few weeks ago the founders Tristan Vouga and Marek Jancik showed their invention at the Cybathlon in Kloten ZH. Their “pilot” was the handbike athlete Silke Pan, who was equipped with TWIICE‘s exoskeleton. We talked with both about TWIICE, the Cybathlon and what it means to help wheelchair bound people to walk again.
Tristan & Marek, can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Tristan: I studied Micro engineering at EPFL. It was a dream since I was 6 to become a micro engineer and life simply didn’t give me any other choice. I quickly realized that EPFL was not enough and I decided to spend one year in Stuttgart as an Erasmus and another year at Duke University (North Carolina, USA) for my master’s thesis. There, I developed a brain-controlled exoskeleton for monkeys. I started my PhD almost two years ago and this is when it all started with TWIICE.
Marek: I started to get interested in materials as a kid. I used to play ice-hockey and I was at least as much interested in the equipment as in the sport itself. Since then I followed this path and got my degree in Materials Science at EPFL, with an exchange year at the University of Manchester. I specialized in the design and manufacturing of high performance composites structures. Before joining Tristan, I worked in the development of light drone protective structure for Flyability.
What is TWIICE ? What problem do you solve?
T: TWIICE is an exoskeleton that enables paraplegic people to stand up and walk again. Using TWIICE, people, who would otherwise be wheelchair bound, can regain mobility, but also do all the small things they usually cannot do, such as talking to people at eyes level, grab things on a shelf or get on the bus alone.
How did you come up with TWIICE?
T: The idea came from Mohamed Bouri, my thesis director, who simply asked me if I was interested in transposing the brain-controlled exoskeleton that I made for monkeys to a human version. Since then, the project has changed completely and we started everything from scratch, but the idea stayed.
Is there a personal story behind your motivation to help physically disabled people?
T: As engineers, our work is not always immediately to help people. Especially in research where there is often a long way before the technology is brought in contact with users. For all the TWIICE team, being directly impacting on disabled people’s life is extremely rewarding and means a lot for us.
Are there competitors out there?
T: Yes, there are. Although the number of commercially available exoskeletons for clinical purposes can be counted with one hand, there are a lot of research projects around the world running in the same direction. But this is a good sign, it means what we are doing is relevant and useful. Also, this diversity will help creating better exoskeletons and will bring new design ideas.
You took part of the Academia Industry Training Camps (AIT) in Brazil in 2015. What did you learn there?
T: The AIT Camp was a huge boost for the project. It was one of the first time we looked at TWIICE as a company and started considering the business side of our technology. The trip was also an opportunity to be part of a big and happy family of entrepreneurs getting together every so often to talk about their project, share advices and experience, and help out each other. The contacts we made there are timeless and will have a great impact on our business in the future. I recommend everyone to check out this years pitchfest of AIT at the end of the month.
What about applying for venture leaders USA?
M: Of course, this is in our roadmap to participate in the next edition. We have been focused on the technical development lately to demonstrate a good working prototype. It is now time to bring it to the next level and start working seriously on the business development. venture leaders could help us a lot on this aspect.
You’re taking part in the Startup Acceleration Workshops at EPFL (#vlabSE). What key elements did you learn there?
M: Not coming from a business background, the workshops help me structure the different business aspects a lot. Their format really places emphasis on applying the learnings practically right after the theory. I particularly like the opportunity to test my pitch and have a direct feedback from the speakers and other course members.
And would you recommend it to others?
M: I definitely recommend the Startup Essentials / Acceleration Workshops to anyone wanting to accelerate the development of their business idea. The workshops’ environment makes us constantly challenge our approach and reconsider false assumptions.
A few weeks ago you and your startup took part at the Cybathlon in Kloten ZH. What is the Cybathlon about?
M: The Cybathlon was the first international competition of physically disabled athletes assisted by novel technologies. These assistive technologies enabled the pilots, to overcome daily life-like obstacles they could otherwise not do. There were 6 categories and we took part in the powered exoskeleton race with our test pilot Silke Pan.
And how did it go?
M: We had a great run that brought us to the finals and the fourth position in our category EXO. Our technology was able to challenge today’s best companies and research institutes after only one and a half years of development starting from scratch.
Did you meet any new customers or investors?
T: The Cybathlon was clearly an amazing opportunity for us to showcase our technology. We received a great deal of media coverage before and after, as well as many contacts from major technical partners and potential beneficiaries of our technology who wanted to become a test pilot. We are very soon to begin a new test phase and we will be very happy to help people by having them try their custom-made version of TWIICE.
What are the next steps?
M: The next steps are to go and meet more potential customers to better understand their needs and refine our technology into a great product. We are already starting to improve the usability of TWIICE with our pilot Silke Pan, as we progressively move from competition to personal and daily use. But to transform TWIICE into a product that will help people who need it, we first need to start raising funds and that is what we are focusing on right now.
Check out the highlights from Cybathlon: