Nearly 1.3 million people in this country are paralyzed as a result of spinal cord injury. Around the world, there are millions more. Eythor Bender wants all of them to have a robotic exoskeleton in their homes. When that's done, he wants you to have one, too.
Bender is the CEO of Ekso Bionics, the Richmond, California-based company behind the Ekso, a wearable robot that helps paraplegics walk. Introduced in February, the Ekso is used in 20 rehabilitation centers. It's a true medical breakthrough, but it only hints at the bigger market the Ekso team says is out there. The company envisions people who suffer from strokes, multiple sclerosis, and other debilitating conditions using an Ekso to get back on their feet. It is working on Eksos for carrying heavy loads. It plans to build Eksos for the elderly, Eksos for hikers, Eksos for just about anyone.
"The team here can pretty much build anything," says Bender. "My job is to say, 'What should we focus on over the next three months, six months, and a year? Let's get that done and then move to the next one.'"
It takes a matter of minutes to strap on an Ekso. Initially, users can move the robotic legs using buttons located on two hand-held crutches; once they have gained more experience, they need only shift their weight to make the legs move. Though the Ekso is currently being sold only to rehab centers and to individuals who can afford both the Ekso's $140,000 price tag and the services of a physical therapist, Bender says the company will be rolling out its first at-home product by 2014. The goal is to make this technology as pervasive among paraplegics as prosthetics are among amputees.
"Amputees would never think of leaving their prosthetic leg behind in rehab," Bender says. "They have it as a companion for the rest of their lives."
Originally named Berkeley Bionics, the business was born out of a Department of Defense research project at the University of California, Berkeley. At the time, co-founders Nathan Harding, Homayoon Kazerooni, and Russ Angold were developing exoskeletons to help soldiers carry 200-pound loads. That technology, known as the HULC, or Human Universal Load Carrier, is now licensed to Lockheed Martin. The two companies collaborate on developing the HULC for military purposes, while the rest of Ekso's team focuses on making home-use Eksos.
The company faces substantial hurdles, starting with cost. Even if Ekso can reduce the price by half, as Bender believes it can, it will still need to get insurance companies on board. To do that, Ekso will need to prove that exoskeletons actually make wheelchair-bound people healthier. Recently, the Kessler Foundation released preliminary research that showed just that--specifically, that regular use of the Ekso might improve strength and endurance.
That is what Bender likes to see. "This story won't be complete without the personal device," he says. "If it remains a rehab device, that's all well and good, but our real purpose is to transform people's daily lives. There needs to be something other than just the answer no to the question, 'Can I ever walk again?' "