Helping others help themselves

Eli Krumholz sits with Lynn giovannelli who has ALS and uses the Abilitech Assist
Eli Krumholz sits with Lynn Giovannelli, who has ALS and uses the Abilitech Assist. Photo by Scott Streble.

Eli Krumholz (BA ’11, PhD ’17), the director of software development and electronics at start-up medical device company Abilitech Medical, has an insatiable curiosity. That’s why he spends hours and hours of his personal time perusing the farthest corners of YouTube.
“It feels like a distraction, but it almost always pays off,” Krumholz says. “I can’t tell you the number of problems I’ve solved because I saw somebody solving a similar problem—and then a month or a year later, the light bulb comes on.”
At Abilitech Medical, Krumholz channels his curiosity into projects that range from robotic motion control systems to wearable sensors, both of which contribute to creating products that make it possible for patients with upper-limb weakness or injury to use their arms for everyday activities.
Krumholz, who participated in the U of M’s Talented Youth Mathematics Program in high school, originally came to the University intending to pursue a math degree. But when he started thinking about what actual day-to-day life would look like with a math degree, he realized it wasn’t very motivating to him. That’s when he started exploring more applied uses of mathematics.
“I decided that there must be a way to learn about people and study social interactions with math,” says Krumholz, who then changed his major to psychology.
For his graduate degree, Krumholz’s curiosity led him to biology, which seemed to have interesting routes to explore in the realm of mathematical modeling.
At the same time, Krumholz was interested in nurturing his entrepreneurial spirit. So toward the end of his graduate studies, he began formulating plans for a couple of small start-ups: a chatbot that would help students crowdfund, and an education start-up for middle-school science classrooms called StemHero.
But while Krumholz was working on those projects, a nonprofit called Magic Arms that was making 3D-printed exoskeleton orthotics for children caught his eye.
“That meant a lot to me,” Krumholz says. “Growing up, I had a family friend who had cerebral palsy, and just getting him out and taking him out for dinner meant so much, and that kind of independence was clearly what Magic Arms was working toward.”
Krumholz ended up running a crowdfunding campaign for Magic Arms, as well as an analysis tool to record video of patients and their motions to determine a good fit for the device.
When the executive director of Magic Arms left to create Abilitech, Krumholz had an opportunity to work on commercial exoskeleton orthotics for adults. “They thought the analysis tool [I had used] might be important,” Krumholz says, “so I jumped right into that, and that grew into the role of software electronics director for Abilitech.”
The flagship product for the company, Abilitech Assist, is a device that enables wearers to use their arms for activities for which they’ve previously needed help from caregivers. It is in clinical trials at the U of M and Gillette Children’s Hospital through the Schulze Muscular Dystrophy Ability Study.

The other side of the creative coin for Krumholz is his habit of looking—on YouTube, and anywhere else his curiosity takes him—for instances where people have solved a similar problem.
“You just have to keep building things,” Krumholz says. “Right now, I’ve got a buddy with a spinal cord injury, and it’s tough for him to go out for a beer with his friends. How can I come up with a way for him to hold the beer and drink whenever he wants, instead of having to signal somebody every time?”
Krumholz admits he doesn’t have a solution for that yet, but he trusts his creative process as he continues to incorporate his past experiences into his work with Abilitech Medical.
“I think there’s something satisfying about solving a problem that someone has,” Krumholz says.

This story was adapted from Minnesota Alumni magazine.