Meinig School alum founds startup to develop spinal health wearable

cell phone app display and small rectangular device

cell phone app display and small rectangular device
Dynein Health's UnBent wearable MVP (right) and mobile app for data collection and analysis.

Qiwei (Chi-way) (Alex) Li (M.Eng. 2019) has founded a startup to develop a medical device to address chronic muscle pain. The company, Dynein Health (Chinese: 动力因健康), is developing a solution for sedentary office workers who experience shoulder and neck pain. The Dynein Health technology, called UnBent, is a smart wearable device to address cervical spondylosis, a deformation in the upper spine caused by repetitive incorrect postures. Unbent is designed to relieve pain, while also collecting postural information; it also has the capability to retrain poor postures, with the intent to prevent degenerative arthritic changes of the spine. Li founded the company in Beijing in fall 2019 with friends and classmates from his Cornell BME M.Eng. program.

The germ of the idea for Dynein Health, says Li, came from the M.Eng. design team project on muscle pain that he worked on at the Meinig School. Li and classmate team members Kerianne Coulon, Nairuti Jhala, and Graham Thomas, along with guidance from project sponsor Dr. Norman Marcus of the Norman Marcus Pain Institute, came up with the idea for a diagnostic and treatment device called the Noci-Stim.

Qiwei Li and classmate team members Kerianne Coulon, Graham Thomas, and Nairuti Jhala presenting the Noci-Stim device at M.Eng. Industry Day in May 2019.
Qiwei Li (far right) and classmate team members (from L to R) Kerianne Coulon, Graham Thomas, and Nairuti Jhala presenting the Noci-Stim device at M.Eng. Industry Day in May 2019.

“The Noci-Stim device utilized nerve stimulation to locate sensitized, chronic-diseased muscles and to mark the muscle groups on a 3D-muscle-atlas software that we built for pathological patterns and accurate treatment,” says Li. The intent for the the Noci-Stim device and software was to empower clinicians and the public to have a greater understanding of the soft tissue that may be the cause of the pain, and also to prevent unnecessary surgeries and nerve blocks that oftentimes don’t work.

Of the collaboration, Dr. Marcus remarked, “Qiwei Li and his colleagues in the Cornell/Meinig BME program enthusiastically embraced the pathophysiological mechanisms of soft tissue-generated pain. Under the guidance of Dr. Newton De Faria, they produced the precursor to an instrument that could revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of common pain syndromes such as low back and neck pain.”

Li credits this experience at Cornell as setting him on his current path. “Learning how to evaluate and build something people need is what I think matters the most and has truly helped me so far,” said Li of the design team project experience application to his new endeavor with Dynein Health. “I gained deep knowledge of how spondylosis and chronic back pain are developing across the world, and how these diseases are very difficult to treat and cure.”

Li remembers asking Meinig School M.Eng. director Dr. Newton De Faria for advice when he was deciding whether to stay in the US to work as an engineer or return to China. “Prof. De Faria provided insights to me at the time when I needed it most.”

What were those insights? According to De Faria, Li was curating those insights himself during his experience in the M.Eng. program. “I work [with students] more as a sounding board and modulator and less as an all knowing figure of authority. I challenge their ideas and opinions so that they arrive at conclusions on their own,” said De Faria. “Qiwei had opportunities to work in the US, but during the program he acquired the "entrepreneurial bug" and was entertaining going back to China and creating his own opportunities. All I did was to agree with him that the world today is much more connected, China is a major player, and yes, he would find a lot of needs and opportunities back home. I am looking forward to hearing about his adventures and successes.”

After several conversations with De Faria, Li realized that whatever he did, he wanted to make an impact. And that’s what he’s doing now as founder and CEO of Dynein Health.

When Li began to consider starting a business, Li sought help from Cornell eLab accelerator program for student startups, to build a business model and communication plan. A number of Li’s Cornell and Penn State classmates were involved at the beginning of this venture. Some moved on to pursue their own career goals after graduation, but Cornell classmates Zhongling Huan (M.Eng 2019) and Fang Chen (M.Eng 2019), and Penn State Alum Hetian Gao stayed on. Together they decided to base their startup in Beijing where millions of people are suffering with chronic muscle pain. Currently, Dynein Health is located in an incubator at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

Despite the COVID-19 crisis this year, Li and his team have managed to develop prototypes and secure partners to join, fund and help further their MVP prototype. Li says the team is gradually growing as well, they will be launching Unbent to the Beta customers within next few months. And in the near future, they are aiming on developing more wearable devices to help people in quantifying risks of chronic diseases and preventing them with actionable goals.

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