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    The Disabled Student Entrepreneur Swapping Toys for Tech

    A student with brittle bone disease has launched a startup in eastern China to develop a smart exoskeleton that will allow him and others to walk.

    For over a decade, Zhang Liang, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, has used a wiggle car to get around. But that’s all about to change. This summer, the 22-year-old plans to unveil a self-developed intelligent exoskeleton that will allow him and others with physical disabilities to stand and walk independently.

    The sight of Zhang arriving on his wiggle car to take the gaokao, China’s national college entrance exam, brought him public attention in 2022. Since then, the Anhui Polytechnic University student has launched his own technology startup, bringing together a team of 28 full-time employees and university students majoring in fields such as computer sciences and mechatronics, with the aim to produce affordable smart technology that improves the lives of disabled people.

    In April last year, Zhang and his classmates developed their first-generation bionic exoskeleton using a 3D printer, which enabled Zhang to stand for the first time. Success was fleeting though, as the prototype ultimately failed, yet it inspired him to preserve and refine the technology. “I’ve developed a sacred sense of mission and responsibility. I’m more determined than ever to do this well,” he says.

    Brittle bone disease is a rare genetic disorder that affects one in every 15,000 to 20,000 newborns. While in most cases it does not have a major effect on life expectancy, the condition makes sufferers highly prone to bone fractures, even from minor impacts, and can severely affect mobility.

    Zhang is unable to walk unaided and is 1.3 meters tall. Before reaching adulthood, he would experience bone fractures in his upper and lower limbs every two to three months, often with no apparent cause. The frequency was particularly high when he was a toddler, although he has only a vague memory of the pain this brought him at the time.

    Speaking to Sixth Tone, Zhang says that the fractures have occurred less frequently since he turned 18 years old. Yet, while he has accepted that there is no cure for his condition, being able to stand and walk like the average person has always been his dream.

    “When I was younger, recovery was very fast, taking just two or three weeks,” he says. “But as I grew older, it became slower, often taking about a month.”

    One of his most severe fractures occurred in second grade, when he was around 8 years old. He suffered a comminuted fracture in his right lower leg, resulting in bone splinters. He recalls that even a slight breath would bring agonizing pain.

    Raised in a traditional farming family in Susong County in the eastern Anhui province, Zhang did not expect medical treatment for his disease due to financial constraints, and his family did not know where to seek a cure. The cost of getting casts for his frequent bone fractures had already taken a toll on their finances.

    “Back then, whenever I had a fracture, my grandparents would use wooden splints provided by the hospital, along with bandages, to immobilize my body and prevent deformities. I would also take anti-inflammatory medicine,” Zhang says.

    Yet, the condition did not stop him from exploring the outside world. In third grade, he discovered that a ride-on wiggle car was a convenient and affordable mode of transportation for short distances. Since then, Zhang has worn out around 10 such cars of various colors.

    While there is no cure for brittle bone disease, early intervention is important for patients to ensure optimal quality of life. Common treatments for the disease include fracture care, physical therapy, and a surgical procedure known as rodding, in which metal rods are used to help stabilize and strengthen the longer leg bones.

    After the media exposure from his unique appearance at the gaokao in 2022, Zhang was referred to a medical expert in the northern city of Tianjin specializing in brittle bone disease. However, he was informed that he’d missed the optimal window for treatment. “Inside, I’d known for a long time that this would be the case. It’s normal,” he says.

    Finding support

    The grim medical prognosis did not dent Zhang’s determination to not only stand for himself one day but also provide for his family. “My grandparents are both over 70 years old now, and they have worked in farming for most of their lives, raising two generations,” he says. “Now I can use my own money to pay for their medical treatment.”

    Zhang began delving into diverse entrepreneurial ventures shortly after entering university in the fall of 2022, including establishing a photography studio, programming game scripts, and selling SIM cards and graphics cards on campus. These endeavors saw him achieve financial independence at 21 and enabled him to purchase a Volvo worth 320,000 yuan ($44,220).

    Exoskeleton technology has long been one of Zhang’s academic interests, and his entrepreneurial imagination was sparked when he heard of a disabled senior student’s struggles to find employment despite his remarkable abilities.

    “The challenges faced by disabled people in finding work really struck a chord with me. That’s why I decided to start my own company,” he says.

    Setting out to develop affordable, intelligent exoskeleton products, Zhang has been conducting market research and recruiting team members since September, mostly students from various fields.

    According to Zhang, the market price for exoskeleton equipment hovers around 150,000 yuan, which is expensive for most families where one member is disabled. “We aim to keep the price of our product within a range that is affordable for the vast majority of families, ensuring swift market penetration,” he says, without elaborating on the pricing strategy.

    Beyond that, Zhang says his company’s product will also cater to the genuine needs of the disabled, enabling them to move freely. The intelligent exoskeleton design features four flexible robotic arms as the primary load-bearing structure, optimizing comfort and convenience for users.

    “Most exoskeleton products on the market now tend to be bulky and rigid, failing to cater to the daily living and mobility requirements of people with disabilities,” he says, explaining that he has personally tested several products. “They give me the impression that they’re making the human body part of the exoskeleton rather than making the exoskeleton part of the human,” he adds.

    In the past month, Zhang has been busy seeking fresh capital of 500,000 to 800,000 yuan to fund further experimentation and large-scale production, visiting numerous influential institutions in Shanghai and Beijing to pitch his business plan.

    “People often say that the best things in life come to those who wait, but constantly waiting can be nerve-wracking. I much prefer to take the initiative and create opportunities myself,” he says. So far, five investors have expressed an interest in his venture and are evaluating his startup.

    Despite the physical and mental stress of being a young entrepreneur, Zhang remains optimistic about the launch of his exoskeleton product this summer. He’s also looking forward to becoming its first user.

    Once he gains the ability to move freely with the assistance of the exoskeleton, Zhang's initial aspiration is to acquire a driver’s license and embark on a journey in his black Volvo, to explore the world beyond the confines of his wiggle car.

    (Header image: Visuals from Zhang Liang and VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)