Giovanni Zappatore is the CEO and Co-Founder of BionIT Labs, an Italian startup that applies Information Technologies to Bionics to “Turn disabilities into New Possibilities”.
He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci IoT, a network of Italian companies active in developing IoT and medical technologies for the safety and well-being of people.
Giovanni holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering, Energy and Propulsion at the University of Salento.
In 2018, together with Matteo Aventaggiato and Federico Gaetani, you founded BionIT Labs, a company active in the research and development and distribution of bionics and robotics products dedicated mainly to orthopaedic applications. What business opportunity did you spot? How did the idea of BionIT Labs come about?
Giovanni: It all started with my university studies. I had to choose the topic of my bachelor’s thesis in industrial engineering, and I wanted to do something complex; I was looking for a challenge.
From a mechanical point of view, the human hand is one of the most complex part of our body. It is a perfect trade-off between various characteristics that is very difficult to reproduce artificially. The hand is, in fact, really robust, but also light and capable of fast movements, it is highly dexterous and at the same time it implies fine motor control.
I, therefore, became interested in the subject and realised that on the market there are not advanced myoelectric devices (i.e., which are controlled by reading the user muscular signals) that can be controlled easily by upper limbs amputees. Instead, these devices have pre-set functions that have to be activated before the user can make any movement.
I continued to explore this topic during my master’s degree and presented the first patent for a device that allows all fingers to move together and adapt to the grasped object without the need for a complex control strategy by the user.
Later, when a public call for funding was announced, I decided to involve two other colleagues, Matteo and Federico, to work on the project. We applied for the call, won the tender, and together we founded BionIT Labs.
You created Adam’s Hand, the world’s first fully adaptive bionic hand. Can you tell us more about the product and its future developments?
Giovanni: Following amputation, there are usually two muscular sites available for the control of a myoelectric hand: the flexors and extensors muscles of the forearm. Therefore, by using two EMG (electromyographic) sensors on these muscles, a robotic hand can be opened or closed by making two main movements, wrist flexion and extension.
A polyarticulated hand (i.e. a hand that can move all fingers) is generally equipped with 5 / 6 motors to control and perform grips and movements. With only two sensors as input, the process is not trivial. Usually, some kind of pre-set grips are used, i.e. saved in the devices’ memory, which the user has to select before grasping an object.
Moreover, to select the grip, the user has to make other muscle movements, for example, a double or triple contraction of the flexors or extensors muscles. This process is very complex, also from a psychological point of view, especially for those just starting to use these devices.
With BionIT Labs, we have developed a patented mechanism that allows us to move all the fingers together, making them automatically adapt to the shape and size of the objects being held, without the user having to choose any type of grip. This dramatically simplifies the use and reduces the learning time required to use such devices while increasing the grip’s stability. This allows us to obtain a very robust device, which can support the users in all the activities of daily livings (ADLs), which are fundamental to their well-being.
In addition to the hand, we have developed several accessories, such as a supply system, our ThunderCell Battery, and proprietary EMG electrodes (i.e., sensors to read the muscle signals), our Wave Electrodes. We will continue developing and improving the device, adding features, and setting it in different sizes. Then eventually, we will move to other parts of the human body.
In the last few weeks, you announced that BionIT Labs raised € 3,5 million from a pool of investors led by Cdp Venture Capital SGR and Equiter. What are the company development plans?
Giovanni: To date, we are a company of 25 people, including employees and collaborators, and we have raised a total of over € 5 million, including public funding – mainly SME Instrument and Puglia region calls – and private funding.
We will start marketing the product to prosthetic clinics in early 2022, thanks to the upcoming recruitment of specialists in the sector.
Our initial geographical focus will be Europe. Then we will approach the United States, a country that represents about 50% of our market.
One last question: what do you think about the Italian startup ecosystem? How is creating a tech business in the south of Italy?
Giovanni: Considering that our target market is international, we did not find any particular impediment in being based in Lecce rather than in another city. Let’s say that we suffered the same difficulties as all other Italian startups.
Also, talent attraction and retention have not been a problem for us. The people who work with us were mainly hired after they finished their university studies, and they were motivated thanks to the work-for-equity mechanism.
In my opinion, it is essential to surround yourself with a team that is as willing to take risks as you are. Furthermore, these kinds of projects can only be realised if you are accompanied by trustworthy people who share the company values with you and are willing to help each other in difficult times.
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For more info on BionIT Labs, visit: https://www.bionitlabs.com/