Robotic exoskeletons for humans might sound like something from the far-off future, but they’re very much here.
Wandercraft, a Paris-based startup, has raised $45m to bring the launch of the world’s first self-balanced exoskeleton closer to commercial launch. The company’s raise was led by US fund Quadrant, Bpifrance, MACSF, Malakoff Humanis, AG2R La Mondiale, Mutuelles Impact and Sofiouest.
The idea behind Wandercraft came from cofounder Jean-Louis Constanza’s son, who uses a wheelchair. “When my son was younger, he said to me ‘you’re a robotics engineer, so why don’t you make a robot that can help me walk?'” Constanza recalls.
Wanderscraft’s exoskeleton has been used in rehabilitation hospitals for the past two years, but the version is too heavy for use outside of a hospital, so the company’s now developing a lighter version for at-home use.
When it launches, it’ll be the first time people with spinal cord injuries or those in stroke rehabilitation have the chance to try self-supported walking at home.
Wandercraft is part of a cohort of startups working on exoskeletons — devices worn to support and mobilise the body. The global market is already worth more than $125.6m and generates well over $100m in revenue each year.
Alongside Wandercraft, there’s Spain’s Marsi Bionics, which is developing a leg exoskeleton for children, and Gogoa, another Spanish startup, which was the first exoskeleton to be marked safe for clinical use.
Wandercraft’s skeleton differs from the two, however, in being the first in the world to be ‘self-supporting’ — Marsi’s skeleton uses a wheel system behind the child and other companies, like Gogoa, rely on crutches to balance the exoskeleton.
“Self-balanced walking is one of the holy grails,” says Constanza. Wandercraft’s exoskeleton achieves self-balance using a series of algorithms which keep the machine in perfect balance as the person moves.
It includes twelve motors within it — the number Constanza says is needed to mimic the movement of the lower body. The person using the exoskeleton can signal it by slight movements of the upper body — if they move their shoulders slightly forward, the machine will help them to stand up, and if people don’t have movement in their shoulders, it can be directed using a sensor placed near the person’s head.
The current model, used in hospitals, costs between €150k-200k, and 14 hospitals in Europe currently own one.
The commercial model designed to use at home will be sleeker and lighter and, Constanza says, cheaper to make, because they can manufacture a larger run of skeletons and bring down the cost.
Building an at-home model also comes with a different set of considerations.
“It really needs to be beautiful,” Constanza says. “Not only functional, but people are going to want it to be beautiful.”