Sarah Anderson is in the right place. She's in the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, where Ford automobiles rolled off the lines in the 1930s, followed a decade later by World War II jeeps and tanks. On this day in May, she hopes a new generation of machine will once again make movement possible. Hit by a drunken driver 11 years ago, the 33-year-old former rodeo rider, paralyzed from the waist down, prepares to walk.
Anderson stares fiercely down the cement demonstration "runway" under the high-ceilinged, skylit dome of the Albert Kahn-designed factory where Ekso Bionics makes its home. The building, largely abandoned after being destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, found architectural salvation when Orton Development purchased it in 2004.
"I don't know how many times I've dumped myself out of that chair because of a pothole or carpeting," she says, waiting impatiently while a spotter for the company works on the robotic frame into which she's strapped. He checks the onboard computer's batteries, adjusts motors at hip and knee joints, and hands Anderson crutches for balance and controls. "Before this, it was, 'Here's your wheelchair, make peace with it.'"
Co-founded by CEO Nathan Harding and Chief Technology Officer Russ Angold in 2005, Ekso Bionics has developed the Ekso, a 50-pound, wearable bionic exoskeleton. Primarily used in the 61 rehabilitation centers with which Ekso has formed relationships worldwide, Ekso "backpacks with legs" augment the movements of people with impairment due to spinal cord injury, strokes, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's disease.
In November 2010, Time named the company's exoskeleton one of the 50 best inventions of the year. One of the first robotic augmented mobility devices to go to market, Ekso successfully raised $20.6 million in a reverse merger in early 2014. At the company's 44,000-square-foot headquarters near Richmond's Inner Harbor, Harding says the alternative public offering means Ekso is well-positioned to build sales in the medical industry and "move on the right trajectory" into the home market.
The research supports his optimism. A number of studies found that the suit improved muscle function and decreased spasticity in users. Meanwhile, the military has taken notice: Companies like Lockheed Martin have signed on as licensing partners, and the company will assist the development of an exoskeleton for the U.S. Army called the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit.
"TALOS is going to be the crown jewel of the industry," Harding says. "The project is so ambitious, it allows us to work on things that would be impossible to fund by other means. The idea is to get close to Iron Man in four years time. The path is exciting."
The military application shouldn't be surprising; it's where Ekso got its start. Harding, a mechanical engineer, studied robotics and economics as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University and earned a Master in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley. He worked in the lab of professor Homayoon Kazerooni, a UC Berkeley pioneer in the field of wearable robotics technology. His research was primarily funded by the U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Harding was accustomed to odd inventions, but he'd never seen a pull tractor powered by a fighter aircraft engine — until he met Cal Poly San Luis Obispo agricultural engineering undergraduate Russ Angold. "Craziest thing, but it worked," Harding recalls of Angold's invention. The two began working together, targeting the military market and developing the ExoHiker, an early iteration of the Ekso, nicknamed BLEEX. Consisting of a 90-pound, gas-powered, leaf-blower-like contraption and leg braces, BLEEX was designed to assist soldiers carrying up to 200 pounds of equipment during long missions.
After Angold's Navy SEAL brother broke his neck in 2004 (he eventually regained mobility), Harding and Angold's partnership gained urgency. Soon, they puzzled over how to adapt the machine to help the disabled.
They knew they had to streamline their cumbersome design: They replaced the petroleum engine with lithium batteries and shed half of Ekso's weight by using carbon fiber and aluminum.
An Oakland artist who works in leather was teamed with a mechanical engineer to design the soft but durable straps. "We saw how important anything touching the body was," Harding says. "Another pressure sore could turn people off. We've never had a pressure sore reported." A power button located between the shoulder blades and affectionately known as "the hug button" was moved, after they realized a person's first reaction upon seeing someone rise from a wheelchair is to embrace him or her, which would accidentally shut down the exoskeleton.
Operating on insider tips and data collected during every walking session, variable assist technology was introduced in late 2013. As a person gains command of the exoskeleton, she begins to actuate her own steps with buttons on the crutches or walker. The amount of assistance from the suit can be fine-tuned and reduced as a patient gains strength. At the most advanced level, the suit is even able to detect and adjust to strong hip/weak knee combinations that would otherwise "trick" the technology into over- or under-augmenting a user's abilities.
A better working relationship with the machine was important to Anderson, who had tried a device that locked the joints. It tore her rotator cuff and left her feeling like Frankenstein's monster.
One day, Darrell Musick, her physical therapist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, asked, "Want to try on bionic legs?" Now, in the Ekso, Anderson says being able to stand eye-to-eye with her mom, hearing conversations better, and not being ignored by people who dismiss her or "forget" she's nearby are "huge mental boosts." Reducing bedsores and the gastrointestinal problems associated with life in a wheelchair are medical advantages she says are "obviously promising." She and seven other ambassadors the company employs demo the product eagerly. On this day, Anderson's arrived 20 minutes early and says, "Are you ready? Can we go?" like a kid.
Thirteen minutes of stand-time and nearly eight minutes of walk-time later, she has taken 233 more steps. She is jubilant.
Unlocked by hard science and technology, Anderson's emotion — and Harding's passion — are impossible to ignore. And, as seems to be his habit, Harding is restless to push the frontier. Price is one obstacle: The suit costs $110,000, including a $40,000 software kit. "The price point for a clinic device isn't high, but for the home medical market, 3D printing, and not needing to build it to adjust to so many frame sizes, will bring the cost down." Anderson says she'd jump at the chance to buy her own, personal model.
Harding used to illustrate Ekso's position in the field of human augmentation with a tiny surfer on an enormous wave. Today, as the company closes in on 10 million steps taken by Ekso users, he has a new picture. "The holy grail will be when you see a grandmother in Ekso pants, taking a walk with her granddaughter," he says. "That's the place it's going. That's in the 10-year forecast."