Michael Goldfarb elected Fellow of National Academy of Inventors

Michael Goldfarb, H. Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has been elected as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors.

The NAI Fellows Selection Committee chose Goldfarb, also, a professor of electrical engineering and physical and medical rehabilitation, for demonstrating “a highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and welfare of society.”

He is an acknowledged leader in the design and control of robotic devices and systems that improve mobility, functionality, quality of life, or quality of care for people with physical disabilities. This includes the development of robotic limbs for upper and lower extremity amputees and the development of lower limb exoskeletons for individuals with spinal cord injury and stroke.

Michael Goldfarb

One of the devices, the Indego exoskeleton, enables individuals with paraplegia from a spinal cord injury to stand and walk. The exoskeleton, now made by Parker Hannifin, earned an R&D 100 Award in 2018. Separate versions of the Indego are available for personal use and therapeutic use, and new models are in the works and likely to be commercially available in 2021. Among the new versions will be exoskeletons for people with stroke-related loss of leg functions; those require different controls and actuators.

A separate project, a “smart” prosthetic ankle that conforms to all kinds of terrain–hilly, rocky, steep, or smooth–is in the commercialization pipeline as well. The ankle’s sensors, actuator and tiny motor work together to allow lower-limb amputees more freedom and safety in navigating rough terrain.

One of the big challenges now, Goldfarb said, is moving from passive prostheses to ones with their own power and ensuring the user remains in control.

“The opportunity is the judicious use of power and intelligence in a limb, because up to now they have been all passive, without volition,” he said. “Intelligence and volition in a device can provide function, but you lose agency. “The challenge is how to provide function without reducing agency the user has.”

Goldfarb has published more than 200 papers on related topics and received multiple best-paper awards. Other honors include the Vanderbilt University Chancellor’s Award for Research in 2008, the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Edward Nagy Award in 2011, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Wyss Institute Translational Award in 2012. He was named by Popular Mechanics in 2013 as one of 10 Innovators Who Changed the World.

The NAI announced 175 Fellows in the Class of 2020 cohort Dec. 8. The NAI Fellow program has about 1,400 Fellows worldwide representing more than 250 prestigious universities and governmental and non-profit research institutes. Collectively, the Fellows hold more than 38,000 issued U.S. patents, which have generated over 13,000 licensed technologies, 2,300 companies and created more than 19.5 million jobs. In addition, over $2.2 trillion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.