Mar 25, 2022 - Economy

Robotic limb tech startup raises $3.3M for "little old muscle"

Illustration of a robot arm holding a bag of money.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Phantom Neuro, a startup building a system to help people control robotic limbs, raised $3.26 million in seed funding led by LionBird Ventures, CEO Connor Glass tells Axios exclusively.

Why it matters: For years, the majority of funding and public interest in robotic limbs has gone to companies focused on devices implanted in the brain that allow people to control devices with their thoughts. Phantom's focus on muscle is unique.

Details: Additional investment came from Draper Associates, Peter Thiel-backed venture firm Blackrock Neurotech, Breakout Ventures and Capital Factory.

  • As part of the financing, LionBird Ventures partner Robert Lord will join Phantom Neuro's board, while managing partner Ed Michael will become a board observer.
  • "There’s a lot of archaic technology that impairs the quality of life for patients in this area," Lord tells Axios. "[Glass is essentially] taking tech that wasn't working very well and creating an API for the peripheral nervous system."

Context: Glass started the company after doing a research fellowship in reconstructive surgery at Johns Hopkins, where he grew frustrated by the lack of advanced prosthetic options available to people with amputations.

  • "We have amazing orthopedic technology, and we've made a lot of progress, but it hasn't gotten to patients," Glass says.
  • Glass then worked with a team of academics and surgeons from Johns Hopkins to create the foundation for Phantom's approach.
  • That team includes Phantom technology co-inventors Nitish Thakor, a professor of biomedical engineering, Sami Tuffaha, an assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery, and Phantom investor Jaimie Shores, director of the Hand and Arm Transplant Program at Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Transplant Center.

How it works: Phantom's setup — still in its early stages — is based on research and technology from Johns Hopkins that combines small implantable sensors, AI and software in an effort to allow people to control robotic prostheses and exoskeletons using existing muscles near the location of the amputation.

  • A strip of sensors the size of a piece of gum is implanted shallowly within the muscle tissue at an amputation site.
  • Electrodes within the strip send signals wirelessly to the prosthetic, allowing for movement. 

What's next: Phantom's technology is still pre-clinical and needs to be tested on animals before moving into the human testing phase.

The company has begun discussions with the Food and Drug Administration and plans to pursue approval with the agency, Glass says.

  • "Now it’s about building out a full, bells-and-whistles version and testing it," he adds.
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