After six years in a wheelchair, Tamara Mena can walk again. PHOTO BY GABRIELA HASBUN
Tamara Mena was 19 years old when she dismissed all hope of ever walking again. Mena was living in San Diego and working toward a degree in hotel management when she and her boyfriend Patrick decided to hit the clubs in Rosarito Beach, just across the Mexican border. Since they didn’t want to risk drinking and driving, they took a cab. They never made it to Mexico.
About 2 miles from their destination, their vehicle slammed into a horse. The impact launched the animal into the air; it landed on top of the cab, crushed the roof to seat level, and killed Patrick and the driver instantly. Mena was paralyzed from the midchest down.
“I wanted to walk,” she says. Graced with tawny hair, high cheekbones, and chocolate-brown eyes, Mena, now 25, is a picture of youthful vitality if you overlook the tracheotomy scar where medics inserted a tube to oxygenate her collapsed lungs after the accident. “I looked into walking with braces, but they sucked the energy right out of me. I met with a doctor about stem-cell treatments, but that was costly and there was no guarantee. I gave up. I had to move on.”
EXOSKELETONS, SAYS EKSO BIONICS CEO BENDER, WILL BE “THE JEANS OF THE FUTURE,” STREAMLINED ENOUGH TO WEAR IN ECONOMY CLASS.
Six years after that fateful night, in a nondescript warehouse in Berkeley, California, she is moving on—using her own two legs. She stands on the linoleum floor, supporting herself with a pair of crutches, an expression of quiet determination on her face. The lower two-thirds of her body are enclosed in an aluminum frame attached by Velcro straps to her ankles, calves, thighs, hips, and chest. A physical therapist stands behind her, one hand grasping a handle on the contraption’s rear panel, the other holding a control panel. Each time the therapist presses a button, small electrical motors at the frame’s joints move in a motion that replicates the action of corresponding muscles—one of Mena’s hips swings ahead, the associated knee rises, the foot lifts and then falls to the floor, and she takes a precious step forward.
Mena is a test pilot for Ekso Bionics, a front-runner in robotic exoskeleton technology, which can replace or augment human capabilities. Led by Icelandic CEO Eythor Bender, the company has licensed its technology to Lockheed Martin for military use and sold its initial medical product, the Ekso, to rehabilitation centers throughout the U.S. Bender says the medical market is just the beginning. He envisions robotic frames for industrial workers, like miners, dockers, and construction workers. He imagines that each of us will want an exoskeleton: “the REI Ekso,” recreational outerwear that confers superhuman strength and endurance.
“We’re starting with soldiers and paralyzed people because their needs are great and the opportunity for funding is better,” Bender says. “But you can imagine exoskeletons for workers using tools too heavy to hold for more than a few minutes. And a consumer version for people who want to run a marathon or climb Mount Kilimanjaro.” Exoskeletons, he dreams, will be “the jeans of the future”—practical, fashionable, and streamlined enough to wear in economy class.
First, though, he must get past obstacles that have derailed many a medical-device company. He must convince rehabilitation therapists and wheelchair users that the Ekso is more than a pricey gewgaw. He will need to outdistance competitors, some of whom already have products on the market. Finally, he must persuade the FDA and the insurance industry that paralyzed people need to walk, a proposition that’s controversial even among paraplegics.
NORDIC SPIRIT: CEO Bender thinks exoskeletons could affect industries as diverse as construction and health care.PHOTO BY GABRIELA HASBUN
For Mena, the Ekso’s impact has already exceeded expectations. “I just wanted to walk again,” she says. “But once you get up, you realize how meaningful it is to look at people eye to eye and hug someone while you’re standing up. I had forgotten what that felt like. Once you remember, it’s hard to go back to a wheelchair.”
Ekso Bionics’ staff has ballooned from 23 to 68 in the past year, and its Berkeley facility is fit to burst. Past the cramped reception area (which doubles as a customer-service bullpen), it’s Santa’s robotics workshop. The 12,000-square-foot floor is a labyrinth of workbenches, storage bins, and whiteboards covered with electrical diagrams. A yellow gantry—basically a 35-foot girder on trestles—cuts across the floor to protect test pilots like Mena against falling.
A fully assembled Ekso hangs on a rack next to one of the benches, its legs pumping repetitively in test mode. Even without an upper body, it looks shockingly human. Its architecture matches the familiar anatomy of legs and hips; its black aluminum frame (adjustable to wearers of different heights) mimics the bones, its gently whirring electrical motors, the muscles. Its gait falls between a leisurely stroll and a military step as it marches toward the marketplace.
The dream of a wearable robot capable of overcoming the frailties of human anatomy dates back at least to March 1963, when Marvel Comics published its first issue devoted to Anthony Edward “Tony” Stark, a millionaire industrialist who donned a mechanized suit to become the Invincible Iron Man. The U.S. military was thinking along the same line, and six months later, Army engineer Serge J. Zaroodny published a paper entitled “Bumpusher: A Powered Aid to Locomotion.”
Zaroodny’s design kicked off nearly four decades of dubiously productive military investment in the concept. The human body burns calories in proportion to the work it does, but early exoskeletons consumed immense amounts of energy simply standing still. The only solutions were to tether the robot to a wall socket or strap a powerful gasoline engine to its back. Neither option was fit for the battlefield. A key breakthrough came in 2004. At the University of California, Berkeley, Homayoon Kazerooni, Nathan Harding, and Russ Angold realized that the standard techniques for driving hydraulics were simply too inefficient. A mobile robot required a fresh approach. Their DARPA-funded design shunted weight through its joints into the ground, so it didn’t consume energy at rest, and it used regeneration to take advantage of gravity and recapture expended energy. This allowed the team to cut the electrical cord in favor of battery power. The result was the first practical untethered exoskeleton.
Angold had only military needs in mind until he received a terrible phone call: His brother had broken his back. “I flew to Virginia Beach, where he was in the hospital, and said, ‘We’re going to make exoskeletons to help people walk again,’” he recalls. His brother eventually made a full recovery, and Angold returned to martial applications. But at conferences, the team kept running into doctors interested in a therapeutic exoskeleton.
Recognizing opportunities in two disparate markets, in 2005, Kazerooni, Harding, and Angold formed Ekso Bionics (then called Berkeley Bionics). CEO Bruce Borup came aboard three years later, fresh from a stint with CFC, Inc. magazine’s fastest-growing U.S. defense contractor of 2007. He promptly cut a licensing deal with Lockheed Martin, which would refine, manufacture, and market the olive-drab Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC, giving Berkeley Bionics a royalty on sales.
Borup’s knowledge of the defense market was indispensable to securing the deal, but he departed soon afterward. To attack the medical market, the company needed a different kind of CEO. It needed Eythor Bender.