(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.
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.
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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.