The long walk to success for NZ robot leg makers

By Suzanne McFadden

Two Auckland engineers made world headlines with their robotic legs for the paralysed. As Suzanne McFadden reports, it was an overnight sensation seven years in the making.

Robert Irving (left) and Richard Little of Rex Bionics with their Robotic Legs that allows paraplegics to walk. Photo / Richard Robinson.
Robert Irving (left) and Richard Little of Rex Bionics with their Robotic Legs that allows paraplegics to walk. Photo / Richard Robinson.

What's the secret to keeping the lid on a project that could go viral with the tiniest leak?

Richard Little, an amiable bear of a man with a Scottish brogue, is willing to tell. It's about locking your garage door, keeping your head down and sealing your lips - don't even tell your parents - until you are unquestionably sure your creation will do all it promises, and thus be a commercial success.

That's what he and business partner Robert Irving, a childhood friend, did for four years in Little's windowless garage on Auckland's North Shore, while they built the first conceptual model of Rex, the robotic exoskeleton - a world-first standing and walking alternative to the wheelchair.

What came out of the shed was Igor - Rex's elder, less sophisticated brother - with wooden feet and a drainpipe for an arm, that could sit, stand and walk. Igor was constantly kept in the dark, as were Little and Irving's family and friends.

"We spent four years working on this, and we didn't engage with anyone - funders or users. I didn't even tell my parents till just before the launch," Little says. Last month's launch came seven years after the project began. His fiancee, Rachel Peterson, knew - because she was the test driver for Rex's early trials, having been a wheelchair user since she was 5.

"We had to keep it secret because we didn't want our competitors to know what we were up to," says Little. "We felt exhausted, but we were so pleased - there had always been doubt. At that point, it felt like it now belonged to the users, rather than us. So it had to be finished for those people."

That's when Little and Irving decided to share the extraordinary robotic legs with others - but only a certain few.

The first was Jenny Morel, founder of venture capital manager No 8 Ventures, whose backing got the Martin Jetpack off the ground. They knew Morel, who loves these kinds of ventures, could keep it confidential. When they led her into the garage and whipped the sheet off Igor, she was "just blown away".

"They had a prototype that could stand up and take a couple of steps, so it was really highly credible. I got very excited about it; they say I got as excited as them that day. So they were sure we'd do the deal together," she says.

And they did. But again Morel had to act surreptitiously for the next three years; even approaching potential Rex Bionics board members was a clandestine affair.

One was British surgeon Jonathan Sackier, the medical mind behind Computer Motion, which made the world's first commercial surgical robot, Aesop, and a developer of laparoscopic surgery and amniotic stem cells. Now a professor at the University of Virginia in the United States, Sackier was speaking at a conference in Auckland when Morel sidled up to him.

"I think I gave him the best pitch line of my life: 'Would you like to come and visit our secret company?"' she says.

Intrigued, Sackier accepted the invitation, then Googled the only clue Morel had given him: Rex Bionics. "I found nothing, which I thought was fantastic. I'd no idea what they were building, but at least I knew they were doing it sensibly, and not creating unreasonable expectations," Sackier says.

"When I got there, I liked the fact the premises were humble, that it was really a garage. I immediately warmed to Richard and his team - I knew I was in the presence of superior intellects. I have to tell you I got rather emotional about the whole thing."

There and then, Sackier agreed to be a director of Rex Bionics, alongside Little, Morel and Paul Dyson, an authority in the medical devices industry. Sackier could see the life-changing benefits the 38kg Rex legs could bring to wheelchair users, having seen many American soldiers paralysed in combat.

"To see a proud young man who was fit and strong suddenly limited in his mobility, and suddenly know you can help solve that problem ... My brain was racing," Sackier says.

"Rex could be absolutely huge. It could make Intuitive Surgical look small." Intuitive Surgical is a prosperous Nasdaq-100 corporation manufacturing robotic surgical systems.

As Rex Bionics needed larger premises, it became difficult for Little to lease factory space without giving away the company's business. "I had to say we wanted it for light engineering," he says. "I'm sure some of them thought we were starting a P factory." They found a suitable space in Albany and are now on the verge of having to find somewhere bigger again.

"It was difficult engaging suppliers to make parts for Rex. They would sign confidentiality agreements, and every one of them respected that because there was an overwhelming belief in what we were doing. Sometimes even their workers wouldn't know what they were making parts for."

Each Rex, controlled by a joystick, has more than 4700 individual parts.

"People would come in for a job here, and after their first interview still wouldn't know what the job was for."

Until Hayden Allen, a Rex Bionics employee paralysed from the chest down after a bike accident, stood and walked in the robotic legs before a worldwide audience, he had managed to keep the project a secret from his astonished mother and father.

While keeping mum may have added to Rex's integrity when it was finally unveiled to an unsuspecting but approving world, the true success of the Rex story, Little says, is in the execution.

"It's all about the execution, the hard work you put into it. Of course it's a lovely story, about how Robbie and I got together seven years ago and created this robotic technology. But the other side of the story is the late nights, the early mornings, the sheer effort it required," he says.

"There is no substitution for doing the hard yards. It was never the same challenge - sometimes it was technical, sometimes it was people."

The "lovely story" began on a not-so-upbeat note, when Little was working as an engineer at British Aerospace and got a phone call from Irving. They'd been friends since the age of 13, mucking about on cars together in their garages in the Scottish highland town of Fort William. They'd both become engineers, working on different high-tech projects together through their careers, and had both separately emigrated to New Zealand.

Irving called to say he'd been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. "We figured straight away we were going to do something," Little says. "Both our mothers were in wheelchairs - Robbie's for MS, mine after a stroke.

"It struck us, as engineers, that while a wheelchair is a wonderful thing, it has definite access problems. Three stairs at the front of a municipal building is like a mountain. But the world isn't flat and we can't change it." So they approached it from another angle.

Little had dabbled in robotics before, inspired by the "Power Loader" exoskeleton in the Aliens movie, worn by Sigourney Weaver in her clash with the Alien Queen. "I'd built a humanoid robot six months before, so I suggested we build a set of legs for Robbie."

Six months later, back living in Auckland, the pair met in a Newmarket bar and drew the first plans on a beer mat.

What developed next is what they call a "fusion of engineering and disability".

When Igor first walked, they were pretty excited - "because it was a cool piece of technology and we were going to be able to deliver it to users. It had the functionality, it was safe and efficacious". After they spoke with Morel and her business partner, Mark Edwards, the numbers came together too.

"We knew that there would be enough people to use it and buy it. We could see we were going to be able to deliver it to a large number of people," Little says.

No 8 Ventures gave Little and Irving, then known as Smart Orthotics Ltd, enough funding to continue working with the technology for another year, move into a workshop and hire more engineers. Over the seven years, Rex's innovation would cost around $10 million.

Rex Bionics now has 25 engineers and a handful of marketing and sales staff. Eighteen months ago it hired an executive in San Francisco to help develop contacts in the US - predicted to be Rex's single biggest market. But the decision proved premature.

Rex will have to get FDA approval before it can be sold in the US; safety requirements also have to be met for the British and European markets.

Much of the robotics from the original Igor - with its on-board computer, battery pack and mechanical moving parts - have been retained in Rex. The biggest leap forward in the past three years has been in safety systems.

The company expects to have its first sales in New Zealand before the end of the year, starting with Auckland. Much interest has come from Canada, Mexico and Turkey.

Rex is expected to retail internationally at around US$150,000 ($205,000), and a little less here in New Zealand. Morel doesn't see sales being constrained by the price.

"Expensive? Compared to what? I think the Engadget website said it best, when they wrote the worst news was the initial asking price, 'but then we'd hardly say we're qualified to judge the value of being able to walk again'."

When asked why a robotic exoskeleton had not been made for this purpose before, Little has a simple answer: because it's really hard. "There are three huge technological challenges. You need a sophisticated robotic platform that can handle thousands of things - safety, balance, going forward, measuring battery temperatures. Mechanically, it needs to be strong enough and light enough. The third is fitting humans into a robot - building a machine that's adjustable for a large number of people."

Sadly, Rex isn't the answer for everyone. Potential users need to undergo medical checks from their physician and physical therapist to ensure there are no reasons why they shouldn't stand or walk. So far, seven people have tried Rex, some with spinal cord injuries, others with muscular dystrophy.

"You never tire of seeing their reactions," says Little. "It's so emotional. It's a very personal thing, sharing their personal journeys, and you share yours with them. You have this very close interaction with strangers, but they quickly become family."

Rex users will be "customers for life". They need to be fitted into the robotic legs, trained to use Rex and require a constant maintenance programme at Rex centres, which will eventually be set up globally.

Little's partner, Rachel Peterson, has a child's version of Rex on her wish-list. Peterson was born with muscular dystrophy, getting around on a skateboard until she had to use a wheelchair at school. She now manages the Rex trials, but was the original guinea pig, spending hundreds of hours in the device, testing critical adjustments.

A medical complication which requires impending surgery means Peterson is no longer using Rex, but she says it's been a blessing in disguise.

"It's meant I can now concentrate on mentoring others through the process. I know what they're going through and share everything I've learned. I love keeping people safe - I'm the mother hen around here."

Peterson and Rex should be reunited in December - she plans to walk down the aisle to Little at their wedding.

Now Rex is firmly in the limelight, what became of Igor? He is now dismembered, part of a shrine to dead robots. "It's bits and pieces of robotics, and we're proud of it," Little says. "The reason Rex doesn't break today is because of all of these parts that went before him."

- NZ Herald

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