Industrial Iron Man: Ekso Aims To Power Superhuman Workers

Max Scheder-Bieschin, CFO of Ekso Bionics, just comes right out and says it: “We want to create Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit.”

Looking around his company’s warehouse in an industrial section of Richmond, California -– the same warehouse that 75 years ago produced many of the tanks and Jeeps used in the Pacific theater — it’s hard not to take him seriously.

The bionic suits, which look closer to those worn by Matt Damon in the upcoming movie Elysium, are overrunning the place. Over here, one hangs from an industrial-strength gurney while a technician welds circuitry into its knee joint. Over there, another marches in place without a human inside, indefinitely automated for stress tests (an eerie fixture for the last person in the office at night, staff admit.) At the far end of the room, suits painted with military fatigues sit half-assembled. And that’s to say nothing of what goes on in The Tent, a 20-by-20-foot pup assembled in the corner to conceal Ekso’s most confidential projects from anyone — employees included — not on a need-to-know. 

The space is well equipped to handle a new refocus for Ekso. Last week the company won back the rights to produce its exoskeletons for the able-bodied market. Think construction yard workers and firefighters in wearable machines that provide superhuman strength. Up until recently, Ekso had primarily developed medical suits to help stroke and spinal cord injury patients walk again. But after reaching a new agreement last Wednesday with Lockheed Martin, Ekso is now free to turn its science-fiction fantasy into an industrial reality.

“We are not a medical device company,” Scheder-Bieschin reiterates. “It’s about human augmentation.”
It’s also about growth. Scheder-Bieschin mentions an internal report released last year by IDEO, a design consultancy, predicting that the commercial market for exoskeletons will eventually surpass the military and medical markets combined. “We never invest in a new technology without a business model,” the former investment banker says.

As for what that the commercial exoskeleton market actually consists of, the company is keeping a relatively open mind. Potential customers exist in any place where humans handle heavy equipment, such as oil rig workers, Hollywood cameramen, even sherpas hauling loads up a mountain. (They’re already working with Mountain Hardware, which resides in the office building next door, to design what they’ve dubbed the “REI Ekso.”)

But the eight-year-old company has thus far gained most of its attention for helping people who can’t stand up from their chairs, much less climb up Kilimanjaro.

In early 2012, they started shipping exoskeletons that are now being used in medical rehab centers around the world to get victims of lower body paralysis out of wheelchairs and using their lower bodies so their muscles don’t deteriorate.

“It feels like it used to feel when I was able to walk,” says Sarah Anderson as the 31-year–old Ekso ambassador, who lost the use of her legs after being hit by a drunk driver ten years ago, takes calculated steps across the company’s factory floor with the machine strapped to her body. Electric motors fire in sync with her steps, supplying power to her limbs. Computers and sensors help provide balance guidance. Combined with a frame of aluminum and titanium, the battery-powered suit weighs about 50 pounds.

The idea for the medical device emerged after Ekso’s co-founder and CTO, Russ Angold, watched his brother, a former Navy SEAL who suffered a spinal cord injury, regain mechanics in his arm by rebuilding his home. “It got me thinking,” Angold recalled in a recent interview. “How do you gradually recover if you can’t walk? That is where that seed was planted.”

To date, the company has documented approximately 3 million steps taken by some 1000 patients. Ekso has sold 28 of the devices, which have dropped in price from roughly $140,000 last year to $110,000 today.

But even as it’s watched the technology gain traction in the medical field, Ekso has been chomping at the bit to enter the exoskeletons race emerging in the industrial market.

The latest co-licensing deal with Lockheed allows Ekso to do just that. It amends a 2008 agreement that licensed Ekso’s non-medical technology to the defense contractor, giving Ekso back the rights to pursue R&D on industrial-facing suits.

“The new agreement has been designed to incentivize each company to develop both the technology and market for the use of exoskeletons in a variety of fields,” Ekso said in a statement last week.

Lockheed and Ekso previously collaborated on a military suit called the HULC, which allows soldiers to lug up to 200 pounds of equipment over mixed terrain.

On construction yards, early tests of similar suits more than quadrupled employee productivity, Ekso says. “It turns workers away from being a weightlifter and into a craftsman,” says Keith Maxwell, a business development manager at Lockheed, which stands to gain from civilian use of its products as the contractor stares down cuts to U.S. arms spending.

Back at Ekso HQ, Scheder-Bieschin motions to the company’s open-air set-up where no one, not even executives, have an office. “We’re still a startup,” he explains, “meaning we can adapt to change quickly.”

Ekso is one of several companies working on wearable robots that may power the next generation of factory workers. In 2010, Raytheon released a suit for soldiers that is designed to reduce injuries from heavy lifting. And Parker Hannifin, a maker of industrial equipment, recently licensed robotic suit technology from researchers at Vanderbilt University, with plans to get a product on the market by 2014.

For his part, Scheder-Bieschin says he expects to see Ekso’s suits in factories “within two years.”
As the company’s 80 or so workers prepare to throw their hats in the ring with the pack of manufacturers piling into the industrial exoskeleton space, they may be facing more late nights than usual. At least that means no single employee will have to brave evenings with the machines alone.

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