December 20, 2016      

Superflex today said that it has raised $9.6 million for the first round of investment in its “powered clothing.”

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company is a spinoff of SRI International, which developed wearable robotics to help soldiers carry heavy loads with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Superflex’s wearable technology is being positioned for the consumer market rather than military use.

“We’re just coming out of stealth mode,” said Rich Mahoney, CEO of Superflex. “We want to be part of the discussion around powered clothing and wearable, assistive technology.”

“Our goals don’t have a full schedule, but we want to help people understand that there’s different way to look at the world,” he told Robotics Business Review.

Business Takeaways:

  • Superflex, which spun out of SRI International, has received Series A funding that it intends to use to expand its operations, work with manufacturing partners, and conduct testing on a commercial product.
  • Unlike most exoskeletons, which are being positioned for the rehabilitation market, Superflex is designing “powered clothing” with aging consumers in mind.
  • Powered clothing could help not only Baby Boomers, but also those with mobility limitations or who need performance apparel.

A background in rehab

“I worked for seven and a half years at SRI, and before that in the stroke rehabilitation market,” Mahoney said. “That experience is part of what guided this strategy. I understand the challenges for rehab devices.”

Powered clothing could be part of a growing exoskeleton market.

The global exoskeleton market has just started to grow. (Click here to enlarge.)

The global markets for personal exoskeletons and other wearables have grown more slowly than initially expected, partly because of the high cost and awkwardness of early assistive devices. Still, Grand View Research predicts that it will grow to $3.3 billion to 2025.

In addition, health insurers have been slow to agree to reimbursements for exoskeletons.

“There are lots of really good devices out there providing benefit, but they’re stuck in large rehab centers,” Mahoney told Robotics Business Review. “They’re used at the acute or subacute stage, right after people have injuries, but they never really get into the home.”

“I saw technology developed at SRI that was more lightweight and integrated into clothing,” he said. “I wanted to start with consumers and flip it around and create benefit for them.”

“Over time, I suspect we’ll be pulled into rehabilitation environment as well,” Mahoney said.

Designing for comfort, cost

Superflex is now working to commercialize its powered clothing, with an initial focus on assisting aging consumers in Japan and the U.S.

“We found out a couple of things in our transition from SRI’s robotics lab,” said Mahoney. “We’ll use the seed funding to transition our technology, to create something that is valuable, responsive to market needs.”

“Instead of positioning ourselves as a healthcare robotics or exoskeleton company, we’re positioning ourselves as an apparel company with integrated wearable strength,” he said. “It’s a different way of approaching the market, more consumer-friendly, personal.”

According to the company, most technology purchases are made by people over 45 years old, and more than a third of seniors have a mobility limitation.

There is “a large need … to support people as they age,” Mahoney said. “We’re providing options to help people be more mobile, more confident.”

Currently, “most choices are a wheelchair, a cane, or some mechanical assistant with [perceived] negatives,” he explained. “We’re bringing the concept of powered clothing, combining aesthetics, fashion, and comfort.”

“We’re definitely looking at price points as we develop our products,” Mahoney said. We expect them to be more affordable than existing products.”

“The DNA of Superflex from the design side is based in the textile, fashion, design industry; we have engineers working on components, but the product is emerging from design team,” he said.

Although Superflex is working on prototypes, Mahoney declined to provide details on materials.

“Success will be related to how we solve problems such as charging, recharging, and replacing batteries,” he said. “Charging once per day is what most people want to see, and we understand that as critical to design and the success of the product.”

Building Boomer appeal

Superflex’s “primary product will be powered clothing for core wellness,” Mahoney explained. “The Baby Boom generation is a strong initial target for our apparel.”

“We’re assessing the need — we have done some initial focus group testing, and we know the market out there is big,” he said. “We’ll be getting a lot of feedback from the prototype testing.”

Powered clothing from Superflex is based on SRI research.

Superflex’s technology began with DARPA-funded research at SRI.

“We’d like to extend to other populations where people want to protect themselves and add strength to the back and legs,” Mahoney said. “We could help the general public do tasks such as lifting things.”

“Our primary investor is in Japan, so part of its interest was to explore the aging demographic but also contribute to the industrial space,” Mahoney said. “The market is further along there than here [in the U.S.], and we expect to explore it.”

“We’ve looked at dozens of companies across the world for one that would truly stand to benefit the Japanese market, and this is the only one that has met our criteria,” said Yasuhiko Yurimoto, CEO of Global Brain.

“We’re finding partners that aren’t necessarily medical but that are serving the Boomer community,” said Mahoney.

Finding funding and partners

Tokyo-based Global Brain Corp. led the Series A funding, and Horizons Ventures, Root Ventures, and Sinovation Ventures also participated.

“It’s a tough environment for securing funding,” acknowledged Mahoney. “There’s a lot of interest in the type of work that we’re doing but not a lot of investment.”

“I know many of the other exoskeleton companies,” he said. “Most know that we’re working in this area, but we’re not really engaging with that community. We’re looking at building partnerships for our transition into the market and that capture the voice of the customer, both in terms of usability and the feature set.”

Part of Superflex’s investment will be spent finding and working with partners to scale up for production.

“We’re designing for the industrial side and will have announcements next year,” Mahoney said. “We’re working with partners to design for manufacturing and deliver the best outcomes at a reasonable price.”

Superflex currently has about 10 staffers, plus contractors and consultants. “Our circle of influence and friends is a little bigger than that, and we expect to more than double in size with investment,” said Mahoney.

More on Exoskeletons:

New category, markets for powered clothing

“Our long-term vision is that we’re not just a single product, we’re also introducing a new clothing category,” Mahoney said. “We’ve already talked to direct-to-consume, industrial, and occupational safety markets, as well as serving children with multiple sclerosis and disabled populations.”

“There are lots of opportunities in sports and gaming, but we need to be successful with our first product,” he said. “The scary part is making announcement of a new category, then following up with a product.”

“Our investors are 100 percent behind this vision, and they believe in this new category,” Mahoney said. “We need for the company to bring these products to market and to impact other markets. We now have a view into Japan and Asia, where the needs are even more pronounced.”