An Interview with Ekso Bionics CEO Nate Harding

Kristopher Sturgis

February 6, 2016

5 Min Read
An Interview with Ekso Bionics CEO Nate Harding

To learn what the company has been up to, we reached out the company's CEO Nate Harding, who was also instrumental in developing the company's technology.

Kristopher Sturgis

Nate HardingEkso Bionics (Richmond, CA) is a pioneer in the field of exoskeleton technology, having been co-founded in 2005 by the then engineers Nate Harding and Russ Angold and the UC Berkeley professor Homayoon Kazerooni.

This interview with the company's co-founder and CEO Nate Harding touches on the technology's past, likely future, and the challenges and rewards of being one of the first companies developing exoskeleton technology. 
 

Qmed: You've been working on exoskeleton technology for more than a decade. How you see the technology progressing in the near future? 

Harding: When we started, we and others were all working on DARPA grants, creating exoskeletons to help soldiers carry loads. We had doctors coming to us interested in the technology, and then my co-founder's brother suffered a spinal cord injury. When we saw what was available to help him rehabilitate, we knew we could do better, and that the medical community could benefit from this technology. That led us to create the Ekso for rehabilitation use.

Now we've gone back to our roots in "load carriage" to develop exoskeletons that can help skilled workers in industrial, construction, and manufacturing fields by bearing the load of heavy tools. We believe this will be another area where we can help people by helping to increase efficiency and by reducing some of the injuries created by heavy lifting and repetitive motion.


 

Qmed: What sort of things do you think sets Ekso Bionics apart from other similar ventures when it comes to advancing this kind of technology? 

Harding: We are the leaders of the exoskeleton industry. We've seen this from the beginning as a new industry that cuts across many markets. What really sets Ekso Bionics apart is the work we do in our Ekso Labs division. They're always working towards developing the next advancement in human augmentation and building out our portfolio of intellectual property. We partner with leading organizations, such as DAPRA, SOCOM, and the Stanford Research Institute to incubate cutting-edge technologies of tomorrow. We are then able to apply the result of this R&D to our own applications, across multiple market segments.
 

Qmed: What are some of the major challenges your company and team of engineers face when it comes to advancing this technology to the level you'd like to see it reach? How do you hope to meet those challenges? 

Harding: As with any new industry, paving the way has its challenges, but also its rewards. The trick (as with many other technologies) is finding the market opportunities where you can satisfy a real market need with the technology as it stands right now.  There are many many great science projects you could go after with this technology, but what you have to do is find the areas where a real market need can be addressed right now, with the technology as it stands. Then you can build upon that success and move the technology further and further, so that it can fulfill its potential to achieve broad social benefits. We all want to see the grandmother showing off her hip new Ekso Pants that allow her to walk with her grandkids, but the trick will be picking the right path of steps to get there.

Qmed: I know it may seem obvious, but what sort of impact do you think an advanced exoskeleton technology could have, specifically in the world of paraplegia, and how does Ekso Bionics hope to play a role? 

Harding: The Ekso GT with our 'smart' Variable Assist software was designed specifically for rehabilitation use and can have a profound impact by providing the ability to mobilize those with spinal cord injury earlier and more often in their therapy with a greater number of steps. For incomplete paraplegia, our Variable Assist software continuously challenges patients as they progress to use as much of their current capabilities as possible. These benefits are impacting patients with paraplegia right now in over 100 leading Ekso centers worldwide. Our medical fleet has helped patients take over 40 million steps.

In the future, of course, everyone wants to see patients with paraplegia taking Eksos home and spending a good part of their day ambulating instead of rolling. At Ekso, we want to be the company that brings (as reimbursement conditions improve) a higher level of technology to that market so that the value proposition really can make sense for a large number of patients. Paraplegia patients vary greatly in their abilities. Getting the majority of them to safely ambulate in the real world (with uneven terrain) is a complicated problem that we intend to solve.

Qmed: How long do you think it will take before we see this kind of technology regularly assisting patients suffering from paralysis or other diseases? 

Harding: We look forward to a day in the not too distant future when anyone who needs this type of technology will have access to it. In the meantime, we've continued to see growth in the adoption of exoskeleton use, as the rehabilitation benefits are becoming more widely known and experienced. It's clear that the rehabilitation center is the place where most people will get access first. Thousands of patients have used Ekso during their recovery from spinal cord injury or stroke already and becoming "standard of care" is conceivable in three to five years. Broad adoption for home use will take longer and additional clinical studies will be necessary to justify the high cost of insurance reimbursement that patients will need to buy their own units.
 

Qmed: Is there any other information that may be important to understanding this technology? 

Harding: Ekso Bionics has over 190 international patent cases in the area of human augmentation, and we are the highest revenue company in the human exoskeleton space.

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About the Author(s)

Kristopher Sturgis

Kristopher Sturgis is a freelance contributor to MD+DI.

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