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Robotics veteran raises venture capital to build exoskeleton

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(Bloomberg) — The word “robot” conjures images of bulky, metal humanoid objects moving awkwardly. Robotics veteran Rich Mahoney is trying to change that perception by creating a robotic exoskeleton people can wear.

After more than seven years running a robotics group at Silicon Valley research institution SRI International, Mahoney left about a year ago to form a startup called Superflex. On Tuesday, the company said it raised $9.6 million from investors including Japanese venture capital group Global Brain and Horizons Ventures, the VC fund of Asian billionaire Li Ka-shing.

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Superflex is developing a lightweight suit with electric “muscles” that help the elderly and other less-mobile people move around. The system, which will look a bit like a unitard, is designed to provide the wearer with extra strength to get up from a chair or stand for longer. The device has thin actuators built in that use battery power to contract at the same time as people’s real muscles.

The technology was originally developed at SRI, the company that incubated Apple’s Siri digital assistant. The exoskeleton project was part of a U.S. Department of Defense-funded program to reduce injury risk and enhance soldier endurance while carrying heavy loads.

Superflex said the VC money will help it turn this into a consumer product, initially targeted at the aging population in Japan and other developed countries. In addition to its investment, Global Brain said it will work with Superflex to set up a Japan office and help it enter the market there.

Mahoney is careful to manage expectations about a technology that seems more like science fiction. It hopes to reduce the weight of the machine dramatically. The firm has tested it on real people with mobility problems, but a product won’t reach the market until the middle of 2018, he said.

“There’s a narrow view of what a robot looks like. Our technology doesn’t fit that,” said Mahoney, chief executive officer of Superflex. “This funding will help to do the hard work to design the system for manufacturing.”


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