As applications for the 2011 Inc. 500 | 5000 arrive, we thought it would be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on some of the companies that are vying to appear on our ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. (For more information and to apply, go to https://www.inc.com/inc5000apply/2011/index.html). One that caught our eye was Berkeley, California-based Berkeley Bionics.
It's part Gospel of Luke—in which Jesus makes a crippled man walk again—and part Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man. And it just might change the lives of some 70 million people confined to wheelchairs around the world.
Berkeley Bionics has created a battery-powered exoskeleton to get paraplegics out of their wheelchairs and walking on their feet. Called eLEGS, the system is a robotic frame that 'reads' the wearer's arm gestures via a set of crutches. Putting forward the right crutch moves the left leg and vice versa, simulating a human's natural gait.
'It's truly disrupting,' says CEO Eythor Bender. 'There are millions of people in need of something like this,' and very few options out there. Most temporary-walking devices are large, electrical, stationary and extremely expensive, he added.
Berkeley Bionics was founded in 2005 by Homayoon Kazerooni, Russ Angold and Nathan Harding, all researchers in the Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. They received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—part of the federal Department of Defense—to develop an exoskeleton to help soldiers carry heavy equipment across parched deserts, mountainous terrain and other treacherous landscapes.
The team soon realized that exoskeletons could have huge implications for the disability community. Last year, the firm tapped Bender—a veteran of Ossur, the Iceland-based global leader in orthopedic technology—as its top executive.
'We see an opportunity for exoskeletons for pretty much anyone,' he says. 'The aging population, people who want to go hiking or skiing, people who need to carry things, firefighters, postal workers—the possibilities are endless.'
The company will debut eLEGS at a few exclusive rehab centers later this year, including Valley Medical Center in Santa Clara, California. That's when the revenue will start flowing in, says Bender, noting that Lockheed Martin, which has licensed the military exoskeleton, is still supplying operating capital.
To penetrate the lucrative home market—a goal Bender plans to achieve in two years—the firm must come up with a plan to drive down the cost of the device, currently at an eye-popping $100,000. That means getting insurance companies and possibly the Food and Drug Administration on board.
'People are screaming at us over the phone, saying, ‘Why can't I have what you have at home?' says Bender, laughing. 'I tell them, ‘We're working on it.''