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Robotics-based rehab

Dedicated alum leads the physical therapy industry in innovation

When Joseph Hidler ’94, founder and CEO of Aretech, was invited to give the Shirley and Ting-Wei Tang Lecture on campus in October 2022, it felt like a meaningful homecoming. In his talk, “From Concept to Market: Bringing a Medical Device to Life,” he explained the work he has been doing at his industry-leading company since it was established in 2008—developing advanced rehabilitation technologies for amputees, people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, and others with neural control system damage.  
For Hidler, this work is personal, as he himself has an ambulatory disability due to a spinal cord injury. His groundbreaking technology has helped injured people regain functionality that was previously thought improbable and has pushed biomedical device development forward industry-wide. 

Patient in harness walking down steps

Currently, his company’s researchers are focused on creating robotic body-weight support systems called ZeroG: a harness system with an overhead track that allows for intensive specialized physical therapy while mitigating the chance of falling. The evolution of this technology reaches back to Hidler’s work with injured veterans at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. in the early 2000s and his undergraduate experience studying mechanical engineering in the early 1990s.

“The four years that I spent here at UMass really helped create the fabric of the person I am today,” says Hidler. He credits Yossi Chait, professor and director of the Control in Biomedical Systems Research Laboratory at UMass Amherst, for inspiring his interest in control theory and studying dynamic systems for alteration. He also credits his undergraduate advisor, Larry Murch, for getting him to buckle down after noticing Hidler’s mediocre performance during his first semester. “I remember sitting down with Dr. Murch and he asked me very poignantly, ‘are you sure you want to be an engineer?’” Hidler humorously recalls. “I remember thinking I didn’t want to have that conversation anymore … and so I really turned things around.” 

And turn things around he did. He went on to get his doctorate in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University in 2001 and has written numerous papers about his rehabilitation research. This research has not only highlighted deficiencies in current rehab practices but has also guided the development of his products to be the most effective, inclusive, and enjoyable for patients—including the incorporation of mechanisms to support heavier patients and a video screen for entertainment during patient sessions. 

Want to learn more? Watch Hidler speak at the 2021 Shirley and Ting-Wei Tang Lecture.

2022 Tang Lecture — “From Concept to Market: Bringing a Medical Device to Life”