Ekso Bionics, making those who can’t, walk!

Ekso Bionics exoskeleton and patientOne of the best things in life is being able to do good and do well. Companies that do this are special. Companies that use robotics to do this are rare jewels. Such a company is Ekso Bionics.

Founded in 2005 with a license from Cal Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Lab for the core technology (and previously called Berkeley Bionics), the company has developed an exoskeleton that enables people who can’t walk, to walk. In effect, the exoskeleton gives movement back to people whose injuries or conditions put them in wheelchairs for life. The company’s website proclaims it: “For the human endeavor.” Indeed!

The device is a ready-to-wear, battery-powered exoskeleton designed for patients with spinal cord injuries and pathologies that inhibit their ability to walk and stay mobile. The technology to do this has come a long way. Ekso combines robotics and bionics, which you know from 1970s television series. Bionics is really the art of using biology and the human body in engineering. Ekso’s exoskeleton is feasible today because the underlying technology is more compact and affordable now. The inflection point of robotics, technology, electronics, and cost creates the business opportunity for Ekso.

Ekso Bionics patient walkingFrom roots in developing the technology for the military, the company’s exoskeleton is the first such device for medical therapy. Earlier this year, Ekso delivered the first-ever commercial exoskeleton to Craig Hospital in Denver Colorado, and is already in 15 of the top rehabilitation centers in the US and Europe.

Testing the Ekso.  Prior to fulfilling FDA requirements, Ekso conducted extensive studies. In partnership with 10 rehabilitation centers across the US for almost a year, 70 paraplegic patients were given the opportunity to walk in controlled physical therapy sessions. 63 of those patients were able to walk an average of 200 steps during each session. In total, the study patients were walking 4000 to 5000 steps a week, proving the safety and efficacy of the robotic legs.

The exoskeleton enables mobility where there was previously none at all. For the patients, the experience defies the words they have heard so often: “No, you won’t be able to walk again;” or, “You’ll always be confined to a wheelchair;” or “Your legs will never again bear your weight.” The Ekso device promotes the mantra of “Yes I can” for its users. Makes you smile, doesn’t it? 🙂

Ekso features videos on their website showing people walking for the first time with the exoskeleton. It’s wonderful to see the amazed expressions of delight on their faces. Ekso calls them “test pilots.”

Ekso Bionics patient walking with exoskeletonThe Ekso device.  The exoskeleton literally straps onto the outside of the person. The robotic legs move in a natural way – the knee bends, the foot moves forward, heel toe – one foot and leg at a time. The technology was developed and commercialized with the help of the NIST Advanced Technology Program and Small Technology Transfer (STTR) awards. These important programs are federal grant funds deployed to early stage companies or small businesses to give them working capital to develop something innovative that is usually too high risk for the private sector equity markets. Ekso had four SBIR/STTRs, three from the National Science Foundation and one from DARPA.

These grants allowed the company to develop and augment the core technology to take the company into the medical market. The core technology was based on “an innovation around power,” Nate Harding, co-founder and Chief Project Officer of Ekso tells me. He continues:

“We were looking at soldiers who carry heavy loads for long periods of time in uncertain conditions. We looked at how difficult it was for load carriage exoskeletons at that time to carry more than just their own power supply. We decided what was really needed was an exoskeleton architecture that distributed weight down to the ground without consuming any power to do so. That was novel. It meant that power could be used for other things, like helping a soldier walk, rather than holding up the load. Our first prototype of that technology consumed three orders of magnitude less power than the system before it. That innovation built our reputation and gave us the opportunity to help people walk who couldn’t.”

The Ekso Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC™), now licensed to Lockheed Martin, was developed from the DARPA and private funding. HULC enables users to carry up to 200 lbs for hours over all terrains while reducing the likelihood of back injuries.

Getting off the ground.  Equity funding for Ekso was challenging. It’s always challenging to fund hardware-heavy companies because costs are high. Robotics companies, as stated over and over in my other posts about robotics and entrepreneurship, are especially challenging to fund because of costs, risk, and time to market. But, as I have reported here in NewVenturist, robotics’ time has come. And companies like Ekso Bionics prove this point.

Ekso raised a couple of rounds of angel financing before 2010. The social angle helped, Nate tells me, “Some of the angels wanted to impact paraplegics and their families. Some had personal experience.” Funding was helped by the fantastic team behind Ekso. Nate, an alumnus from Carnegie Mellon, was co-founder along with Russ Angold, CTO, and Berkeley mechanical engineering professor, Homayoon Kazaerooni. They were able to attract super high-talent to the company. Eythor Bender, CEO, had years of experience commercializing bionics technologies with Össur, the artificial leg company which he helped grow from a startup to a publicly traded company with 1600 employees. He had moved to the Bay Area and wanted to work in exoskeletons. What a perfect fit! CFO, Max Scheder-Bieschin, was managing director of Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt and NY. Both leaders brought experience and contacts, which helped the startup get off the ground.

In 2010, Ekso was able to attract several high-profile angels, including Scott Banister, well-known entrepreneur (founder of IronPort which was acquired by Cisco) and investor (in PayPal among other companies). In February of this year, the company closed on $9 million.

Ekso Bionics AmandaEkso Bionics AmandaEkso Bionics patient walkingEkso Bionics today.  All manufacturing of the exoskeleton is done right at the company’s offices in Richmond CA (Ekso recently relocated from Berkeley). The office houses an enormous warehouse space to assemble (and display) the robots. Ekso is up to 80+ people now, proving that robotics startups are job-creation engines.

The company has developed a tag-along product, EksoPulse, a software system which allows data to stream from the exoskeleton to the user and the rehab center. The data provides valuable feedback on use of the device, which will be incredibly valuable as the database grows and as the patients use the exoskeleton over time.

Insights.  Nate tells me that it’s been hard, challenging, and the ride of his life to be involved in Ekso Bionics. The learning is phenomenal. His is a case where the robot’s innovation itself opened the doors to new applications, ones that can help mankind as it pushes forward man’s ability to recreate movement and to use biology and technology to solve critical problems.

Keep a lookout for where Ekso goes next!

This post is sponsored by Innovation Accelerator, the private side of a public-private partnership with the National Science Foundation to make America more competitive through innovation. This post is part of a series on robotics and entrepreneurship being published in New Venturist Summer, 2012.

Robotics’ time in entrepreneurship has come. Robots are found at the base of many applications that provide real value to the market and customers. Check out the other NewVenturist articles about robotics and entrepreneurship:

Funding, the nitty gritty, post #6 of “Startup Briefs”
Congrats to the Pittsburgh startup community. Oh, and stop congratulating yourself.
Robots in life, not a dream anymore: Romotive brings robots into our lives