#10: Kinova

How a human-centric approach to design creates better, and more useful, robotics
(Illustration by Joanna Ławniczak)

For Canadians of a certain vintage, the addition of the Canadarm to the U.S. Space Shuttle program represented the crowning achievement of our country’s technological prowess. It was the subject of many a school science lesson and the inspiration for many an engineering career. Back then, robotic arms were just plain cool. And they still are.

Today, Montreal-area robotics company Kinova Inc. is continuing Canada’s legacy of robotics innovation by developing earth-bound robotic arms with deeply human usages. Kinova co-founder Charles Deguire got the inspiration to apply space-age technology to practical daily uses from a highly personal source. Growing up around three uncles who had muscular dystrophy, he saw how the condition affected their ability to complete daily tasks. A need for automated help inspired Kinova’s first offering, which has become its flagship technology: the Jaco arm.

The Jaco arm can be attached to motorized wheelchairs to assist users with an array of daily tasks. It has provided autonomy and independence to the lives of individuals with physical disabilities, making it incredibly popular, and the product helped kick off Kinova’s rapid growth over the past decade-plus.

The success of the Jaco arm spurred Kinova to develop and distribute further technological innovations, including arm supports, eating devices, and surgical robotics. And amid all the ideation, calculations, prototyping, and testing of the R & D process, one mandate is fixed: Each product must meet the actual—not theoretical—needs of the people who will use it.

Kinova’s human-focused, empathetic design ethos has led the design and engineering teams’ expansion into other applications for their technologies. In addition to robotics for personal use, the company now offers devices for manufacturing and surgical use—and these now comprise most of the company’s sales. For instance, Kinova robotics are now used to conduct lung biopsies, giving clinicians deeper and faster access. In other applications around the world, they are used to remove hazardous materials, including explosive-ordnance disposal in former conflict zones. This lessens human exposure to risky, but undoubtedly necessary, work.

The latest development for the company is a made-in-Canada industrial collaborative robot, or “cobot,” meant to perform some of the jobs—especially dull, dirty and dangerous ones—that are increasingly hard to fill.

The common thread, says Deguire, is using technology to expand the capabilities of human users. “We robotize tasks,” he explains. “We did that for people using wheelchairs, expanding their reach. In surgery, we expand the capabilities of the surgeon.”

The value, Deguire says, is simple: “We’re providing better tools to humans.”

Read more from the 2022 New Innovators List