By: Benjamin Zirman  | 

New Ability for the Disabled

There are few events that can change one’s life more than paralysis, which can confine people to an inactive lifestyle in a wheelchair, causing health deterioration, poor quality of life, and high medical expenses. These burdens weigh down on the disabled person as well as their families and health insurers. In the developed world there are about 8 million wheelchair users; worldwide that number rises to about 70 million people. For centuries, a wheelchair was the best that technology had to offer. But as the number of wheelchair and scooter users grows, due to both increasing accidents and aging populations, there’s demand for a smart mobility device that will provide fully-functional standing and sitting mobility, improved health, enhanced social inclusion, and reduced healthcare and living expenses. Thanks to an Israeli startup company that created UPnRIDE, a revolutionary device that allows quadriplegics to stand up and move around almost anywhere, thousands of paralyzed people are about to have their wish come true.

It all started with the invention of Argo Medical Technologies, now known as ReWalk Robotics, in 2001. Their product, the ReWalker, a wearable robotic exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion to empower individuals with spinal cord injuries to independently stand upright, walk, turn, and climb and descend stairs. The battery-powered system features a light, wearable exoskeleton with motors at the hip and knee joints. The ReWalker controls movement by detecting subtle changes in an individual’s center of gravity. A forward tilt of the upper body is sensed by the system, which initiates the first step. Repeated body movement generates a sequence of steps, which replicates a natural gait. ReWalk went public in 2014 and is a publicly traded company listed on the NASDAQ exchange. In 2012, a woman completed the 2012 London Marathon in 17 days and Radi Kaiuf completed the 2013 Tel Aviv Marathon, both using ReWalk. In 2015, the US Department of Veterans Affairs announced it would provide ReWalk exoskeletons for eligible veterans with spinal cord injuries. But there was one big problem. Only paralyzed people who had full use of their arms could use ReWalk, which limited its applicability to roughly 10 percent of handicapped individuals.

Dr. Amit Goffer, the creator of ReWalk, is actually a quadriplegic himself, following an ATV accident in 1997. Goffer, an ex-air force captain got his Bachelor’s in Science from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a Masters from Tel-Aviv University, and a Ph.D. from Drexel University, all in Electrical & Computer Engineering. Prior to founding ReWalk, he founded Odin Medical Technologies, a company that develops, manufactures, and commercializes Intraoperative MRI systems, designed for use by neurosurgeons in standard operating rooms, which was later sold to Medtronic

. Dr. Goffer was never able to take advantage of his own product because his paralysis was too severe for him to use the ReWalker. This led him to continue innovating and creating UPnRIDE.

Founded in 2013, UPnRIDE Robotics is headed by CEO Oren Tamari and by President and CTO Goffer, both graduates of the Technion. Tamari went on to receive an MBA in Entrepreneurship and Technology Management from Tel Aviv University and had previous experience in multiple positions at ARGO Medical Technologies. The startup received a grant from Israel’s Chief Scientist for around $550,000, $2.08 million in funding from Israeli crowdfunding platform OurCrowd, and a little under $600,000 from angel investors. So far, UPnRIDE has raised around $3 million, and is in the process of raising another $4 million in Series B Funding. The company is in large part a product of the Technion, as in addition to its leadership, six of the eight members of the engineering team at UPnRIDE are also from the Technion. The company is based in Yokneam Illit, Israel with around 20 employees.

UPnRIDE is a wheeled robotic device, providing upright and seated mobility both for wheelchair users, and for anyone who is unable to, or has difficulty standing or walking. It offers numerous medical, psychological, and economic benefits, ensuring safety while standing, sitting, and shifting between positions, in practically any urban environment. The first commercial model was debuted in September 2016 at the Rehacare International Convention, the International Trade Fair for Rehabilitation and Care, in Germany. Numerous studies have demonstrated the physical and mental health benefits of wheelchairs with a standing position, which enables users to mobilize body parts, and reduce falls when reaching for high objects. The device has 4 key features. First, it has jointed braces and harnessing straps that provide safe support for disabled users. Next, it maintains the same center of gravity in both sitting and standing positions to prevent tipping over and falls when standing. Third, the user stands on a stabilized platform, similar to a Segway, which serves as an ‘active stabilizer' that automatically adjusts the angle of the user’s body to be vertical to earth, even on uneven and sloped surfaces. Lastly, there are sophisticated algorithms that are programmed into the UPnRIDE that detect upcoming hazardous situations and reacts accordingly. “I have had a long-standing vision that all people confined to a wheelchair should have access to enhanced mobility, and enjoy the many health benefits associated with the ability to transition to a standing position,” Goffer said. “With the introduction of UPnRIDE, that dream has become a reality.”

UPnRIDE provides tremendous benefits to its users. To start, it increases independence allowing users to move freely and safely without and help or aid. Second, It improves health as standing up vertically has been proven to be a vital medical necessity. Standing upright counterbalances the impact of prolonged sitting, empowers functional activities, and enhances overall health. For people with serious spinal cord injuries, the act of standing also helps stave off cardiovascular, respiratory and other problems that can arise, said Gabi Zeilig, director of the neurological rehabilitation department at Israel's Sheba Medical Center. Next, it diminishes the visibility of the disability. Users are positioned at an eye-level view in social interactions, enhancing dignity, social inclusion and self-esteem, and heightening quality of life. Lastly, it will reduce medical costs especially the secondary complications of long-term sitting, lowering the need for hospitalization, medications and physiotherapy. This provides savings for health insurers, users, and their families. “There are other standing wheelchairs available on the market,” said Tamari, “But UPnRIDE is unique in that it provides users with full, safe, functional mobility in an upright position in practically any urban environment, both indoors and outdoors. By enabling upright mobility, UPnRIDE delivers numerous health, economic and societal benefits. It shifts attention away from the disability, providing wheelchair users with a fresh, new perspective of the world, of themselves and of life.”

How close are we to having this life-changing product hit the market? UPnRIDE is waiting for results from two important trials. Zeilig ran a clinical trial of the product and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in New York did a second study. Once these two studies are completed, UPnRIDE will be ready to start manufacturing and selling its commercial product, which they hope to do starting in the second half of 2017. In terms of price, high-end wheelchairs cost between $15,000 and $50,000 and UPnRIDE has set its target to be somewhere in the middle at roughly $32,000. Though it isn’t manufactured commercially yet, in August 2015, Goffer was able to leave his home standing up for the first time since the accident, using UPnRIDE. At the time, he said “It was a very strange feeling, an extremely good one.” A brighter future for many disabled people is closer than we might think, and that will be a tremendous advancement in the lives of so many.