University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Helping Others Help Themselves

Eli Krumholz's role in a start-up medical company mixes inspiration, ideation, and implementation

Krumholz with Lynn Giovannelli, who has ALS and uses the Abilitech Assist. The device facilitates Giovannelli’s control of her dominant arm so she can lift everyday objects and independently perform daily activities like eating, self-care, and using technology.
Photo credit: Scott Streble

Eli Krumholz (B.A. ’11, Ph.D. ’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 innovative, technologically advanced 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 (UMTYMP) 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,” Krumholz says, “and I got really interested in things like Game Theory [a branch of mathematics that deals with strategic choices that are dependent on the behavior of others].”

As a result, Krumholz became a psychology major. However, for his graduate degree, he decided to focus on biology because his curiosity led him to areas where there was more mathematical modeling, and the field of biology seemed to have interesting routes to explore in that realm.

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 called StemHero, which is a web-based software platform and bilingual curriculum enhancement designed for middle-school science classrooms.

But while Krumholz was working on those projects, a nonprofit called Magic Arms caught his eye, because they were making 3D-printed exoskeleton orthotics for children.

“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.

As part of his Ph.D. in computational systems biology, Krumholz used network analysis, machine learning, and computational modeling to study cellular metabolism so he could create predictive models for genetic engineering. “One thing I really focused on in that program was how you break down problems into something understandable, so that you can tease out the real problem you’re trying to solve,” Krumholz says. “I think that approach has been really useful throughout my degrees and in everything I’ve worked on since.”

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 innovative experiences into his current endeavors with Abilitech Medical.

“I think there’s something satisfying about solving a problem that someone has,” Krumholz says. “Finding something that truly stands on its own is really motivating for me.”

Steve Neumann is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.

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