Superflex has raised $9.6 million to introduce “powered clothing,” or apparel that enhances your strength just the way military exoskeletons do. But in this case, the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company is targeting elderly people and others who need extra muscular help for tasks such as walking upstairs or getting up from a chair.
Superflex has spun out of research think tank SRI International, and its venture investors include Japanese venture firm Global Brain, Horizons Ventures, Root Ventures, and new investor Sinovation Ventures. Zak Murase of Global Brain and Wendy Yu of Horizons will join Manish Kothari, president of SRI Ventures, and Rich Mahoney, CEO of Superflex, on the board.
“We are trying to create a new category of powered clothing that delivers movement assistance,” Mahoney said in an interview with VentureBeat. “We think of this as the first supersuit. It’s not a video game or science fiction. It’s real and will provide mobility assistance for people.”
Mahoney was director of the robotics team at SRI for seven years. But he liked this particular idea so much that he decided to lead the spinout. Superflex has hired a team of leaders in textiles, industrial design, robotics, biomechanics, and data science to develop the new category of “powered clothing. ” The company defines the concept as lightweight, connected apparel, comfortably worn under any outfit, with integrated electric “muscles” that add intelligent wearable strength and natural mobility to muscles and joints. The aim is to enable everyone — from seniors to athletes to chronically ill children — to achieve their full physical potential.
Superflex technology was developed at SRI for a DARPA-funded program to reduce injury risk and enhance soldiers’ endurance while carrying heavy loads. Those “exoskeletons” have been made famous in fictionalized video games such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
“Warrior web was an exoskeleton that envisioned wearable robotics for fatigue reduction,” Mahoney said. “We used lightweight, efficient actuators and explored the market opportunities. We identified an investor and then spun out.”
Recognizing its profound application beyond the military, Superflex spun out of SRI to explore the technology for a wide range of consumer products. While the potential applications of powered clothing are broad — from sports and recreation to apparel and healthcare — the company is initially focusing on the aging market because of its size and need. This is reinforced by the fact that more than one-third of seniors have a mobility limitation, and most tech purchases are made by those over 45, Mahoney said.
If you can help people who can’t stand up on their own, you restore a measure of their independence, enabling them to get up out of a chair, do their chores, and run errands outside of the home, Mahoney said.
“When people start to need assistance, it is because they are losing strength in their legs and hips,” Mahoney said. “It is like an undergarment, a unitard form factor, that you wear under your clothes. It has integrated muscles, or electric muscles, that assist your movement.”
In the coming months, Superflex will unveil its initial product concept: a powered suit designed for those experiencing mobility difficulties later in life or in challenging work environments, to provide core wellness support for a wearer’s torso, hips, and legs. Reacting to the body’s natural movements, the suit will provide power lift to naturally complement the wearer’s strength during the act of standing up, sitting down, or staying upright.
“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 Yasuhiko Yurimoto, CEO of Global Brain, in a statement. “Superflex’s new category of ‘powered clothing’ represents, in our view, the future of movement, with profound physical and emotional benefits to offer global society.” In addition to its investment, Global Brain will work with Superflex to set up a Japan office and leverage its network to assist the company in entering the domestic market.
I asked Mahoney if the product would end up being a plaything for the rich. But he said that he envisions it being used widely, particularly as the baby boom generation is getting older.
The company has been operating for a year. It has working prototypes and hopes to launch its first suit in mid-2018. Mahoney can’t say yet how much stronger the suits will make people. He said that electric bikes are a good analogy, as they help you pedal a bike faster than you normally could.
“We are forging a path,” Mahoney said. We are not helping soldiers fight aliens or people leap from buildings. We want people to live a more productive and confident life. A tremendous number of people have mobility limits.”