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Feb 28, 2024 Accountancy Alumni Business Administration Faculty Finance Student

iVenture alum lands $1 million Shark Tank investment for PSYONIC and Ability Hand

PSYONIC CEO Aadeel Akhtar landed the opportunity of a lifetime recently when three “sharks” from ABC’s hit television series Shark Tank agreed to invest $1 million dollars in his company and its signature product, the Ability Hand™. Lori Greiner, Daymond John, and Kevin O’Leary split the million-dollar investment in the company, which makes bionic hands for people with limb differences and for humanoid robots.

“Pitching to the sharks was such an exhilarating experience, and to have three of them bite made it all the more exciting,” said Akhtar, who participated in Gies College of Business’ iVenture Accelerator program while pursuing his master’s and PhD at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “We were thrilled that Lori, Daymond, and Kevin understood our vision and were ready to get involved. It’s a real validation of our ability to deliver the fastest and most durable bionic hand to the people who need it at an affordable price, while building an exciting cutting-edge company.”

The group of sharks offered $1 million for the equivalent of six percent of the company. However, because the shares would be a combination of common shares and advisory shares, PSYONIC’s valuation would be set at $50 million. This is the same valuation that the company had during its recently completed $3.1 million crowdfunded equity raise on StartEngine.

The deal and its details are still in progress between Dr. Akhtar and the sharks.

“With sensors on your fingertips, you can feel what you’re doing, even with delicate objects. Its design answers many of the barriers of traditional prosthetic limbs – with a 200-millisecond closing speed, it’s fast, lightweight, and water resistant,” said Akhtar. “Users are surprised that it’s so easy to use.”

PSYONIC’s Ability Hand has a patented motor control and sensory feedback system that’s responsive and intuitive. The sensors can detect pressure when you’re gripping an object and send a vibration to your arm to communicate that sensation.

Now available nationwide, it’s covered by Medicare and has attracted interest from NASA and Meta. Akhtar said he learned how to turn his idea into a viable business through the iVenture Accelerator, a university-wide incubator that’s powered by Gies College of Business.

“We needed to make the leap from a school project to a solution we could monetize, and iVenture helped us create a business plan built on market demand. We learned how to raise capital and used that funding to purchase materials, work on branding, and raise our profile beyond academia,” said Akhtar, who, since working with iVenture, has raised more than $2 million from National Science Foundation grants.

“We were able to overcome the biggest challenges of prosthetic devices – that they’re super expensive and break a lot,” he said. “We took the Ability Hand to a picnic for amputees and their families, and the kids were using it to break a pinata. We’ve come a long way from the 3D-printed prototypes that would break after a few days of use.”

Akhtar started on the path that led him to PSYONIC when, at seven years old, he visited Pakistan with his parents. He met a girl his age living in poverty who was missing her right leg and using a tree branch as a crutch. As he grew, Akhtar came to understand the vast differences in access to healthcare around the world and in the US.

Akhtar earned his undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s degree in computer science at Loyola University in Chicago and became an adjunct lecturer there in 2008. He initially came to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2010 to pursue a joint MD/PhD program. He earned a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering and a PhD in neuroscience, writing his dissertation on the mechanisms for enabling closed-loop upper limb sensorimotor prosthetic control. He left medical school to focus on PSYONIC full-time.

While a PhD candidate, Akhtar began working with Range of Motion Project in Ecuador. Its mission is to provide prosthetics to those who cannot afford them in developing countries. While there in 2014 with an early prototype of the Ability Hand, he met a soldier who changed the trajectory of his career.

“He had lost his left hand to machine gun fire from a helicopter and now for the first time in 35 years he could pinch his fingers. And that’s when I knew I couldn’t go the traditional MD route and work at an academic hospital when we had the opportunity to commercialize this technology,” said Akhtar.

A year later, at the 2015 Cozad New Venture Challenge, PSYONIC won first place for a university-funded startup and won the Samsung Research Innovation Prize. Since formally launching the business in 2016, Akhtar has won the Illinois Innovation Prize, was named one of MIT Technology Review’s Top 35 Innovators Under 35, and the Ability Hand was named mHUB Product of the Year in 2020. Newsweek has also named Akhtar as one of the Top 50 Innovators in America.

“What began as a small group of University of Illinois students has grown to include engineers, public health experts, social workers, and designers – along with an incredible group of doctors, clinicians, and non-profits working in the developing world,” said Akhtar.

“I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do something that I wanted to do my entire life. Joy also comes from knowing that we're improving the quality of people's lives so they can do all their activities of daily living. The lows are low, and the highs are high, but if you have the grit to make it through that roller coaster, the payoff is just incredible,” he said.