A spinoff from the robot veterans at SRI is making a big bet on ubiquitous soft robotics: SuperFlex aims to establish a new product category with what it calls “powered clothing.” The company, which initially split off in April, hopes to have a product to show in a few months, and has raised nearly $10 million to develop it.
Powered clothing, or “intelligent wearable strength” as the company also calls it, would be custom garments with flexible electric motors built in that help the wearer with everyday tasks, from lifting heavy leads to simply walking around. But it’s different from the exoskeletons you might have seen coming out of DARPA and other military-orientated research.
“It isn’t an exercise device, or an industrial device. It’s a wellness device, a personal device,” said Rich Mahoney, a longtime SRI program director who is heading the new company, in an interview with TechCrunch. “We’re interested in helping people with general independence, people who are starting to lose confidence in their mobility.”
If that sounds like the increasingly numerous seniors around the world, it’s no mistake. Lead investor Global Brain is based in Japan, where an aging population is creating friction between families, generations, and social institutions. The idea of a piece of clothing that can help someone stand up, carry groceries, and get out of the house is appealing anywhere, but especially there.
“We’ve looked at dozens of companies across the world for one that would truly stand to benefit the Japanese market, and this is the only one that has met our criteria,” said Global Brain CEO Yasuhiko Yurimoto in the press release announcing the investment.
The initial product, a concept for which is shown above, would enhance core strength in the torso, hips, and legs. Users would be able to ramp up power manually if they knew they’d have trouble carrying a load of laundry, for instance, but the suit can also automatically detect actions. Many older people have trouble standing up, for instance, and the suit could detect the beginnings of that action and give a boost.
Mahoney compared it to an electric bike: power is there when you need it, but otherwise it works just like the ordinary version. The clothing itself isn’t going to be bulky or mechanical-looking, either, as early prototypes were.
“We’re able to do what we’re doing because we have this tech from SRI, but our design team, textile experts and fashion designers, they’re coming from the apparel industry,” he said. “We’re really a clothing company, as opposed to being a robotics company.”
He hinted at “a top design firm” that SuperFlex will be working with, but declined to be more specific. Although the older demographic is the initial target one, professional and athletic applications are also under investigation.
In addition to Global Brain, the $9.6 million A round was funded by Horizons Ventures, Root Ventures, Sinovation Ventures, and SRI. The money will be used to bring the product to market, hopefully with a reveal soon and availability in 2018.