Everyman Iron Man: Ekso hopes to bring "human augmentation" to the masses

By Dan Raile , written on April 9, 2014

From The News Desk

Ekso Bionics co-founder and CEO Nate Harding shares some key traits with Tony Stark.

He is an ingenious engineer hoping to make the world a better place through the deployment of innovative exo-suits. Both have Defense Department contracts. And, especially given that he is operating from within the shell of the old Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant in Richmond, astride California’s third largest port by tonnage, he is something of an industrialist in the grand tradition.

But there are some stark differences as well. For one, Harding is a modest guy who spent the majority of his career in less flashy technology jobs and extensive study and research at Berkeley. The suits Ekso makes are powered by lithium-ion batteries, not arc-reactors. And most importantly, the Ekso suits and Nate Harding himself are entirely real.

But I had to go see for myself.

The Ford plant in Richmond was designed in 1931 by the famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn, designer of Ford’s flagship Rouge plant and a substantial chunk of early-20th century industrial Detroit. The Richmond plant is red-brick and glass, with two-storeys worth of windows enveloping it on all sides. And at 517,000 square feet, it’s gargantuan.

The plant churned out classic American cars until 1953. During that time it was the largest Ford plant west of the Mississippi. During WWII it produced jeeps and put the finishing touches on tanks and other combat vehicles which rolled off the line onto waiting ships to be delivered into the fiery heart of the Pacific Theater.

But the Port of Richmond was closed in the early ‘50s and remained dormant for a little over 30 years. In that time, the plant fell into disuse, eventually being condemned after damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta quake.  Photographs from that time reflect the pathos of ruin often associated with the gutted former glory of Detroit.

During its period of dilapidation, Harding used to sit in the shade of a small copse of oaks near the water, waiting for the since-defunct Fort Point ferry that serviced the pier near the plant, thinking to himself how great it would be if the building were redeveloped and repurposed.

He didn’t realize at the time that just such a project was getting underway. Orton Developers acquired the site from the city of Richmond in 2004 and was tasked with returning the historical landmark to its former glory while converting it to a mixed used facility of light industry, a National Parks Service outpost, live/work spaces and retail operations.

Ekso Bionics, originally called Berkeley Exo-works, was founded in 2005 and began developing load-bearing, “human-augmenting” exo-skeletons shortly thereafter in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory. The original models were designed primarily for use by hikers and mountaineers.

In 2008 Ekso, renamed as Berkeley Bionics, received a grant from the Department of Defense to develop a load-bearing exo-suit for soldiers. Betraying Marvel-ous self-awareness, these soldier suits, licensed a year later to Lockheed Martin, are called Human Univeral Load Carriers, HULC’s for short.

By 2012 Ekso had taken significant steps towards a broader, commercialized vision for their products. In that year, they shipped their first medical-grade suits, and moved into the old Ford plant, with an enormous amount of space for the growth of their operations.

The medical suits now account for roughly half of Ekso’s business, and growing. Harding says he expects the medical side to overtake the military soon. There are currently 50 units out in the world, at 34 centers representing four continents.

They are designed for people who suffer from partial paralysis, complications from stroke, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions that limit mobility.

Unlike many exo-skeleton competitors, the suits are easy to put on, taking an average of two to five minutes to put on. Once the suit is on, patients work with trained physical therapists to walk, with the battery powered suit and its network of spatial sensors sending roughly 500 measurements per second guide the patient through the motions of a normal gait.

The big picture is that Harding and Ekso want to eliminate the wheelchair. Marketing Manager Heidi Darling points out the signs near bathroom doors at the facility, which have replaced the traditional disabled symbol with that of a person wearing a robotic suit. With her euphonious name, red hair and freckles she can’t help but remind this nerd of Stark accomplice Pepper Potts.

For now, the medical suits are the subject of several studies, by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Kessler Foundation among others.  Harding hopes to apply the results of those studies and feedback from physical therapists using the suits to make and needed improvements before ramping up production to bring down the price point, which currently sits at around $110,000. Harding says his aim is for the Ekso to cost about the same as a high-end motorcycle.

Ekso went public in January (ticker:EKSO). In February the Medical Device & Diagnostics Industry Magazine named Ekso among its “Top 5 Startups Poised to Change MedTech Forever.” And while the medical side of the business holds great promise and continues be the fastest growing (in the nine months ending Sept. 30, 2013, the medical side increased revenues 276%), Ekso hasn’t turned its back on Stan Lee: the company was recently awarded a grant from U.S. Special Operations Command to develop technologies for the Tactical Assault Light Operators Suit (TALOS),  “a futuristic assault suit that promises to provide superhuman strength with superior mobility and protection.”

Towards the end of my tour Monday of the Ekso facilities, I asked Harding as offhandedly as I could muster if he had a basement at his house, and what it was like. He was not fooled.

“We do all our testing for that stuff right here,” he said, “after-hours, when there aren’t any reporters around.”