August 25th was a momentous day in the life of Israeli serial entrepreneur Amit Goffer. For the first time in 18 years he was able to go outside while standing up.
“At first it was an odd feeling, standing and moving without anything supporting me in the front and after a while I got very excited,” says Goffer. “I was also very happy seeing that it was such a success and that the hard work paid off. When my wife, who was not in the country, saw the video she texted me ‘I had tears in my eyes’ and then I realized what a moment it was.”
Goffer was rendered a quadriplegic following an accident in 1997.
His legs are paralyzed, he has no control over his torso, he can’t use his fingers and he has limited use of his arms. He has to do everything by using one muscle in each arm. By flexing that muscle Goffer is able to use a thimble-like device on one of his fingers to type on a keyboard or push control buttons.
But he hasn’t let that get in his way. Since the accident Goffer, an ex-air force captain who has a PhD in electrical and computer engineering, has founded two start-ups. The first, ReWalk Robotics, a maker of a wearable exoskeleton, went public on NASDAQ last year. The ReWalk is billed as the first commercially-viable upright device that enables wheelchair users to walk and climb stairs. It won FDA approval in the U.S. and is considered a major breakthrough.
Major Health Benefits
But more severely handicapped people — like Goffer — can’t use the ReWalk, which was designed for paraplegics who have full use of their arms. His latest venture, UPnRIDE, is developing a Segway-like device aimed at a broader group. The emphasis is on mobility, particularly the ability to travel outdoors while standing, rather than walking.
The ability to stand has major health benefits, helping to improve circulation and bone density and prevent urinary infections and pressure sores. It also improves overall quality of life. Making eye contact with others is something that most people take for granted but wheelchair-bound people miss.
“When you are confined to a wheelchair it doesn’t just limit your mobility and impact your health, it is very frustrating,” says Goffer. “When you go up to a counter you find you are too short. When you are in a restaurant the waitress will ask your wife what you want to eat as if you are mentally retarded. The list goes on and on.”
A smiling Goffer tried out a lab model (pictured above) of the UPnRIDE just outside his home in August. The lab model is being used for testing and learning, as part of the development of the beta prototype, which will be unveiled in October. “What we are proving is that the concept of the UPnRIDE works and that a person with severe disability can be mobile safely, in a standing position, even outdoors,” says UPnRIDE CEO Oren Tamari.
8.2 Million Strong Market
UPnRIDE is a convertible wheelchair (a folding seat on to the back makes it easy to either sit or stand) but it is being designed to look more like a Segway, “so that people will not notice that the user is disabled,” says Goffer.
Much like a Segway, when placed in standing position, the UPnRIDE moves over all different kinds of terrains at the user’s guidance. Goffer says it has several advantages over other standing wheelchairs, which are primarily designed to work indoors: the UPnRIDE maintains the same center of gravity sitting and standing, making it harder to fall when standing up; the user sits on a stabilized platform that automatically adjusts the angle of the seat to be vertical to earth; and in an emergency UPnRIDE’s technology is able to identify when someone is likely to fall, activating safety means similar to airbags in a car.
1953: Born in Kidron, Israel
1975: Graduates with a degree in electrical engineering from Technion — Israel Institute of Technology , begins military service
Promoted to Captain in the Israeli Air Force
1990: Obtains PhD in electrical and computer engineering from Drexel University in Philadelphia
1991: Post-doctoral work at Drexel University
1995: Starts Odin Medical Technologies, which was later sold to Medtronic
1997 : All-terrain vehicle accident renders him a quadriplegic
2001: Starts Argo Medical Technologies (now named ReWalk Robotics), maker of a wearable exoskeleton
October 2013: Starts RehaMed (now UPnRIDE Robotics), maker of the UPnRIDE, a Segway-like device that allows handicapped people to travel outdoors while standing
June 2014: The ReWalk gains FDA approval to sell the device to the U.S. public
ReWalk Robotics goes public on NASDAQ
The market could be substantial, given that the number of global wheelchair and mobility scooter users in developed countries is 8.2 million and growing annually by 5%, according to UPnRIDE’s research. About 61% of those people can use smart wheelchairs, translating to a potential annual market of several billion dollars, depending on the UPnRIDE’s target end-user price when it goes on sale in 2017.
The company has so far netted a $500,000 grant from Israel’s chief scientist’s office, a $1.5 million investment from OurCrowd, an Israeli crowd-sourcing site, and $500,000 from angel investors. It expects to have the UPnRIDE on the market within two years.
CEO of ReWalk Until 2012
With UPnRIDE taking up so much of his time these days Goffer has decided to retire from his position as President and Chief Technology Officer at ReWalk Robotics, the company he founded in 2001. He served as the company’s CEO from 2001 until 2012.
Tamari, who has worked at both ReWalk and UPnRIDE, says Goffer has never been daunted by the not inconsequential challenges of designing cutting-edge devices for handicapped people. “He doesn’t see everyday difficulties, he ignores them,” he says.
The two met in May 2007 when Goffer was just starting out to build the ReWalk and was working out of an incubator in his alma mater, the Technion University in Tel Aviv.
In addition to initial aid from the Israeli Chief Scientist’s office and the Technion, and fund raising on OurCrowd, Goffer says efforts to developer ReWalk were greatly helped by Dr. Alberto Esquenazi, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Philadelphia’s MossRehab. Esquenazi specializes in amputee rehabilitation, mobility evaluation and treatment, and gait analysis.
Does Not Want To Be Defined By His Handicap
Esquenazi was introduced to Goffer 10 years ago through a mutual friend while visiting Israel. When Goffer presented his dream about helping paralyzed people walk again, “I told him that this is a very difficult project, one that many people have tried to do and failed. He told me, ‘Please help me understand how walking occurs.’ I thought here is a man who is recovering from a catastrophic injury who is dreaming about this idea of how he is going to help people walk again. Who am I to tell him not to do it?”
It took several years but ReWalk’s prototypes worked and with his guidance on things like adjusting for gait, kept getting better and better. Esquenazi helped the company get access to a gait lab, wrote a protocol to test the device and was instrumental in helping the company gain U.S. FDA approval.
“Amit can be very proud because he has really transformed the application of technology to rehab,” says Esquenazi. “Once he gets an idea in his head and decides it makes sense and needs to be done he is on top of it. He managed to move lots of people and did that from a wheelchair, with his own physical limitations. He would not let anything get in his way.”
Goffer doesn’t want to be defined by his handicap.
“There is so much to do,” he says. “I have so many other ideas for other products. I can not swear that this will be my last company.”