By Stephanie M. McPherson
Imagine you could pack your backpack to bursting for a hike and not worry about the weight pulling at your shoulders as you navigate tricky rocks. Or that you could carry all of your books in your backpack without it jostling up and down as you take the stairs.
Through his company Lightning Packs LLC, MBL Whitman Center investigator Lawrence Rome hopes to ease the aching shoulders and knees of active people everywhere. The company, previously funded by Kickstarter and now on Indiegogo, sells HoverGlide backpacks in which the load, attached to one frame, is suspended via a heavy-duty elastic coupling from a second frame attached to the wearer. This system allows the packs to seemingly defy gravity by reducing accelerative forces by more than 80 percent as wearers run and even jump while hauling gear.
“I never had intentions of going into business,” says Rome, a Professor of Biology at University of Pennsylvania. “But if the invention were passed off to [someone else] they may not appreciate the value in the device, or how to build the device so that it gives the proper behavior to reduce injuries. Hence, seeing no other opportunity to bring it to life, I formed a company, Lightning Packs, to make it happen.”
The Lightning Packs story started 16 years ago, when the Office of Naval Research (ONR) contacted Rome about designing a submersible that swam like a fish. (Rome’s academic research focuses on the musculoskeletal system of frogs and fish, including the systems that allow them to vocalize and control their buoyancy.) This relationship led to a very different research program.
“ONR called one day and said that Special Forces Operators in Afghanistan were carrying around 80 pound backpacks with an additional 20 pounds of batteries. They asked if there was a way to get energy from their movement and convert it to electricity so they didn’t have to carry so many batteries,” says Rome. He developed a backpack with a similar suspension system to what eventually became the HoverGlide pack. The up-and-down movement of the pack coupled to a generator created usable electricity for the operators, reducing their need for carrying separate heavy batteries.
While working on this project (which is ongoing), Rome realized removing the energy generation system while keeping the suspension would provide a different sort of benefit. A 2009 study reported 10.2 percent of people suffered from chronic back pain, up from 3.9 percent in 1992. Rome realized his work could offer a reprieve from the daily stresses of lugging things from home to work, or from hauling camping gear around the wilderness. Rome had published a few academic articles on the idea of the backpack, but he also felt compelled to bring it to fruition.
“Otherwise the public just reads about a cool idea in the newspaper, but it never happens,” he says.
Rome says the freedom given to him and his work at MBL was valuable in moving the project forward.
“MBL offered researchers extraordinary freedom to pursue and create whatever they wanted to do,” he says. “If you had the money, you could work on projects independently devoid of the politics and responsibilities common at home universities.”
The diversity of systems inherent in Rome’s academic research prepared him for creating this unique solution to a widespread problem.
“In my research, I must integrate information over a wide range of levels of organization, from crossbridges to whole animal locomotion and sound production,” he says. “Furthermore, my integrative muscle research also requires novel ways of seeing things—and this was important in inventing these packs.”
Photo caption: A Lightning Packs team member celebrates wearing the HoverGlide after running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Credit: Lightning Packs LLC