Richmond, California

The company’s new exoskeleton vest is designed to reduce the risk of injuries to workers in the construction and manufacturing industries.

Photos courtesy Esko Bionics

What started 15 years ago as an innovation to improve physical performance of members of the U.S. military has evolved into an exoskeleton vest designed to reduce fatigue and the risk of injury in people who work with their arms overhead.

Born out of the University of California-Berkeley bionics lab, Ekso Bionics (NASDAQ: EKSO) received a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create an exoskeleton to increase lower body endurance and strength in members of the armed forces. “That ended up being the entry point for the company’s first technology that became more commercially available,” Ekso Bionics Vice President Michael Pratt says.

From there, Ekso Bionics identified the ability to use similar technology to retrain people who have had strokes or spinal cord injuries and created the EksoNR (NeuroRehabilitation), a robotic exoskeleton designed to be used in patients’ rehabilitation so they can relearn to walk. The EksoUE assists with arm and shoulder rehabilitation.

“Our mission statement is to amplify human motions,” Pratt says. “We’re retraining people to be ambulatory again. There are 1.5 million strokes a year that range from the very young to senior adults. To train them to walk again is a really powerful value proposition.”

Now Ekso Bionics has moved beyond medical devices. The company’s spring-loaded Ekso EVO exoskeleton vest is designed to decrease the risk of injuries to workers in the construction and manufacturing industries. The vest supports workers’ arms when they’re working overhead at 90 degrees or more. Engineered to reduce fatigue and muscle strain, EVO gives its wearers five to 15 pounds of lift assistance in each arm.

Ekso Bionics sources many raw materials locally. With the materials in stock, the company can assemble a vest as quickly as one day in its 45,000-square-foot facility. It plans to keep the vests in stock to fulfill early orders from its customers.

The company adheres to four design principles that differentiate its vest from the competition. It must be comfortable, flexible, powerful, and multi-vertical, meaning it has to have harness protection for people who work on man lifts or scaffolding. It also must be compact, so that manufacturing workers can get into tight places.

“We deliver high value to workers across construction, manufacturing, and food processing,” Pratt says. Where the product doesn’t address the issues, we have a service that will customize a solution that will reduce the risk of injury.”

Challenges: Because Ekso Bionics’ vest is such a disruptive technology, educating people and changing their behavior is the biggest challenge for the company. “There’s never been a technology like this in the workforce,” Pratt says. “The challenge is driving it across all industry segments.”

Opportunities: Pratt rattles off labor statistics to demonstrate the vast opportunities that lie ahead for the company. There are 4.5 million construction workers; 12 million manufacturing employees; and 26 million workers that fall into the other labor industries category.

“The opportunity is so big that it’s one of our challenges,” Pratt says. “There are so many different versions of manufacturing, construction, logistics and warehousing. How do you get your technology that’s different and new across all these verticals?”

Needs: The company is focused on speed and scale so that it can drive the product through the disruptive curve faster, which will enable it to pass the cost savings along to its customers. “If we can do that, it lowers one potential barrier, which is the initial capital investment,” Pratt says.