Wearable systems promise greater mobility for the disabled, but they’ve had to overcome technical and financial challenges. Exoskeleton development is a prime example of how robotics can help people, and UPnRIDE is an innovative mobility technology.
Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently spoke with Dr. Amit Goffer, chief technology officer and president of UPnRIDE Robotics Ltd., a startup working on a wheeled robotic device for users who are physically unable to stand or walk.
Goffer got his B.Sc. from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, his M.Sc. from Tel-Aviv University, and his Ph.D. from Drexel University, all in electrical and computer engineering.
After working at medical imaging company Elscint, Goffer founded Odin Medical to provide medical resonance imaging in real time for brain surgery.
A tragic accident confined Goffer to a wheelchair, and he created the ReWalk system, the first commercially available exoskeleton in the U.S. Although Goffer can’t use it himself, hundreds of thousands of people could benefit from it.
Goffer recently developed UPnRIDE to provide full mobility in a standing position in almost any urban environment.
This interview is available for free to Robotics Business Review readers until May 31, 2018. Here is a preview:
Pransky: How did you come up with the ReWalk wearable robotic exoskeleton?
Goffer: I was with Odin for four very intense years as its CEO and CTO. An all-terrain vehicle accident in 1997 left me a quadriplegic, and following that, I decided to move on.
After the injury, it took me a couple of years to get used to being in a wheelchair, and I couldn’t understand why the wheelchair was the only solution for the paralyzed.
From my home, I started to design a concept of an exoskeleton. I had to calculate whether the solution was feasible, e.g. whether normal-size batteries sufficed and whether the market size was big enough.
Physics told me that my idea would work and a marketing expert friend of mine reassured me that the market was huge. I had these two elements — the feasibility of the solution and the promise of the big market — and I started to design it.
I worked through the Israeli Innovation Authority’s Tnufa — a government incentive program designed for formulating and validating a novel technological concept start-up. If one qualifies and passes their tests, they provide grants. It was great because they come to you, screen you and if you are accepted, it provides confidence in your new product as they take part of your risk.
Tnufa gave me $50,000, and I personally invested $50,000.
I started to design and build the first ReWalk exoskeleton at home with the help of friends. This was the first robotic device I had built, but my knowledge in signal processing eased my way into the field of robotics.
As someone in a wheelchair, I was introduced to the world of disabled people. Before that, I admit that I hadn’t give much thought to people who are paralyzed or in a wheelchair or who have diseases.
Pransky: What lessons, if any, did you learn from ReWalk that you can apply to your new company, UPnRIDE?
Goffer: I started Argo Medical Technologies in 2001. [The company changed its name from Argo to the name of device itself, ReWalk Robotics, in 2014.] I became quite experienced in managing a multidisciplinary company on the technical side as well as on the business side.
In 2012, after many years of managing Argo, I asked the boards to be replaced, and then came the new CEO, American Larry Jasinski.
When Larry was hired, I became the president and CTO. A year after that, in 2013, I registered the company UPnRIDE, and a year later, I started to work with a colleague of mine. In 2014, I spent half of the time working on ReWalk Robotics and half on UPnRIDE.
In April 2015, I retired from ReWalk and switched to full-time at UPnRIDE. I no longer wanted to be CEO of my new company after so many years, and I was very lucky to have Oren Tamari. He worked with me at ReWalk.
I remember I started interviewing potential CEOs, and he was available, and that was it since we worked fantastically together. Today, I am CTO and president of UPnRIDE.
Pransky: Can you explain the business model for UPnRIDE? Will insurance companies pay for it?
Goffer: First, we have to go through the CE [European Conformity] mark. We have completed all the tests required by the CE, and I think we will begin selling UPnRIDE in Europe around August 2018.
We’ll use representatives and distributors in Europe, and we’re already in the process of signing them up. Then, we have to go through the [U.S.] Food and Drug Administration.
UPnRIDE is a low-risk device, and we have lots of comparable wheelchairs that are stand-able and already acknowledged by the medical insurance companies and by the FDA.
Ours is very different, but regulation-wise, it will not be very difficult to get all the FDA approvals and start selling it in the U.S. through distributors.
Pransky: What is the biggest technical challenge remaining for UPnRIDE?
Goffer: We are now producing five UPnRIDEs, and then we’ll complete another five.
I think the main difficulty was to understand what is needed by the user community. This device is aimed not only for paraplegics but for most of the wheelchair users, including quadriplegics like myself and people with multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy (CP), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and more.
Our device has automatic balancing, which means that the user is vertical where there is a forward, rear slope, or lateral slope. This unique part was not a very difficult obstacle because of my previous experience.
Pransky: How much does an UPnRIDE cost?
Goffer: The price of an UPnRIDE is $25,000 to $30,000. The range of sophisticated wheelchairs is from $15,000 to $50,000, so it’s in the middle.
Present commercial standing wheelchairs are not allowed outdoors because of the danger of tipping over even on a small slope; this is because the user stands at the edge of the device, so it’s not stable and limited to indoors only.
But on the UPnRIDE, the user stands and sits in the middle of the device, which is the center of gravity and remains at the same point. It is inherently stable and adding balancing to this, it becomes very, very stable.
UPnRIDE is now undergoing clinical trials at Sheba Medical Center’s Tel HaShomer Hospital, the largest hospital in Israel.
We also start trials at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Bronx, N.Y., in early 2018. The VA Hospital, headed up by my dear friend, Prof. Ann Spungen, finished a protocol with the Institutional Review Board. They conducted the trials with the ReWalk, and now we’re going to do it with UPnRIDE. It will take two years or so, including a follow-up.
Pransky: Should engineers who are themselves disabled be actively sought by companies developing technology for the disabled?
Goffer: Yes, I believe the companies that develop assisted devices for disabled people should employ disabled people to help them with the technology and to understand the needs. UPnRIDE enjoys a lot of my insight as someone who is confined to a wheelchair.
We are also asking other quadriplegic people to try our UPnRIDE, and we will be paying for that on top of our clinical trial. This is something I also learned: My insight is not enough. We need the insight of other people with other injuries or illnesses, and we should employ people with those injuries.
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