Wrapping a robot around a human

After a quarter of a century, Richmond, Calif.’s 500,000-square-foot Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant stopped making cars around the mid-1950s. These days, the space is home to a broad range of companies, including Mountain Hardwear and solar panel manufacturer, SunPower. But there is, perhaps, no tenant more suited for the space than Ekso Bionics.

Founded in 2005 as a spin-off of UC Berkeley’s Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory, the company creates soft exoskeletons, designed to aid factory workers in tedious, repetitive and taxing tasks.

Late last year, the startup fittingly partnered with Ford, bringing its wearable robotic suits to Michigan factory workers. The deal, paid for by the United Auto Workers union, will lead to the EksoVest’s deployment in factories all over the world. But Ekso’s focus moves beyond the factory walls. As with so many other robotics companies, it began life in pursuit of military funding.

“Originally the company was about helping soldiers carry heavy equipment in the field. One of the founder’s brother was a Navy Seal,” explains Ekso CFO Max Scheder-Bieschin. “He was injured and became a quadriplegic. It pivoted from ‘how do I build things to help my brother serve our country’ to ‘how do I help my brother and other quadriplegics get up and walking again’ with that same technology.”

The company’s Ekso Health line focuses on rehabilitation. Ekso’s suits offer lightweight, wearable assistance to patients suffering mobility setbacks from things like strokes.

But Scheder-Bieschin says the company envisions a world in the not so distant future when the technology is a ubiquitous part of our lives. “In 10 years, exoskeletons are going to be analogous to the smartphone today,” the executive explains. “One of the things that distinguishes Ekso is that we know how to wrap a robot around a human, and we do it better than anybody else.”

Join us at TC Sessions: Robotics May 11 on the UC Berkeley Campus.