For the 85 million disabled in China, obtaining a set of rehab exoskeletons is a far-off dream. The futuristic product, which promises greater flexibility and independence, can cost as much as half a million U.S. dollars. Considering that the average disposal income per capita in 2018 was RMB28,228 (US$4,155) in China, one would need to save 120 years of income to afford the equipment.
No wonder a slew of startups have attempted to create cheaper products to tap into this potentially massive and lucrative market. One of them is Fourier Intelligence, a Shanghai-based company backed by Chinese investors including IDG Capital and Shenzhen Qianhai Fund of Funds. But the path toward helping the disabled walk is full of daunting challenges.
"The real hurdle for us is that exoskeleton is not being widely used," said Zen Koh, managing director of Fourier Intelligence, during a phone interview with China Money Network in January. "The main reason is the technological constraint: None of the known 165 companies, laboratories, and research institutions working on exoskeletons can build a product that can be worn on a daily basis for hours. Imagine you buy a several-hundred-thousand-worth device, but you still need to walk around with crutches, then what is the purpose?"
This creates a vicious circle, in which low usage and high price keep most consumers watching on the sidelines. It in turn leads to the inability to scale. What Fourier Intelligence wants to do is to make products at the price level of around US$20,000, eventually lower it to just a few thousand, making it affordable to all disabled.
At the same time, Fourier Intelligence, drawing its name from the French mathematician Joseph Fourier, is tweaking its products to suit the real needs of users. Its next-generation rehab exoskeleton product "Fourier X2″ is designed to assist lower limb rehab for stroke patients and other victims of mobility impairment. The new product, being only one third as expensive as standard exoskeletons in the market, is equipped with a self-developed active motion control system. The system includes four power units and six multi-dimensional mechanical sensors installed near thighs, shanks and soles to read and react to users’ movement intentions. In comparison, most products in the market are based on predetermined programs of the exoskeletons to guide users’ movements.
Zen Koh started serving as deputy CEO of Fourier Intelligence since June 2018. Prior to his current position, Koh was the managing director for Hocoma and the Assistant Chief Executive (ACE) for the Singapore National Co-operative Federation (SNCF), which is one of the apex bodies of co-operatives in Singapore.
Below is an edited version of the interview.
Q: How is the development of the exoskeleton market in China now?
A: I think the Chinese market is huge for exoskeleton because Chinese people are very receptive to new technologies. However, the race in the Chinese exoskeleton market hasn’t even started. I think we are at the exploratory phase.
I hate to say that I think a lot of companies are playing the role of a follower. They study what has been done around the world and try to make it better, cheaper and faster. In my observation, I feel that a lot of people do not know what exoskeleton products they are building and who/why they are building for.
This is dangerous. It’s a bit like reinventing the wheels. We are using the same resources – limited resources, and patience of consumers – to do the same thing again and again. It’s not surprising to me that the exoskeleton market is losing money.
And not just Chinese companies, many international companies build their products based on the latest and most "sexy" technologies available. Then they try to find or justify the needs for the patients. Look at the most successful exoskeleton companies in the world, like California-based Ekso Bionics, their share prices have been dropping for three years or five years till now.
Q: How should the Chinese exoskeleton industry innovate?
A: At this stage, exoskeleton developers, which are also generally known as robotic companies, will have to conduct research and development based on their experience in the market to meet the real needs of target customers. Our suggestion is to have a good understanding of the field. Then understanding our strength and using it to develop solutions for that field.
Fourier believes in identifying the purpose of the technologies to be developed. We work closely with clinicians and patients to understand users’ real needs.
Q: There are a lot of exoskeleton products in the market, which are usually priced at between US$70,000 to US$200,000. Is this price range suitable for consumers in China?
A: You must look at this question from two different angles. First, the price is high for sure. But if exoskeleton can help a person stand up and walk again, it is not expensive. The real challenge for us is that exoskeleton is not being widely used, due to technological constraint, price, and usability.
The main reason is the technological constraint: None of the known 165 companies, laboratories, and research institutions working on exoskeletons can build a product that can be used daily for long hours. Only a few are able to build safe exoskeleton products to perform independent movements. Yet balance is still a problem, meaning users still have to use crutches to be able to walk independently. Imagine you buy a several-hundred-thousand-worth device, but you still need to walk around with crutches, what is the purpose? The price is considered expensive because it cannot fully serve the needs of patients.
Consider it from a different angle: If the adoption of exoskeleton increases, the price will come down because of the economy of scale. We believe the price will eventually reduce to maybe US$55,000 or US$20,000, or even just a few thousand.
But if the economy of scale is not there, and there’s only a small quantity of usage, the price will not drop. So, it is like a vicious cycle, which together lead to low adoption rate. I think, in at least five to ten years, we will have a decent exoskeleton product that can serve the purpose of helping people work independently.
Q: What is your outlook for the industry?
A: In the past, foreign companies priced the device at around half a million U.S. dollars. In the future, I believe every single hospital, clinic, even small private clinic, and home-based therapist will be able to afford some forms of robotic devices to help them perform rehab and physical training tasks to achieve better results.
For Fourier, we hope to build our open platform, attracting an increasing number of clinicians, researchers, engineers, and even hobbyists to adopt our core technologies to develop more meaningful applications. We believe exoskeleton products eventually will become mainstream in three to five years. It is like air conditioners, washing machines, and smartphones, you will feel significantly inconvenient if you are deprived of it.
We hope to have intelligent machines that can interact with each other, send user data to the cloud and provide recommendations of solutions based on AI technology. They will become a great tool to help day-to-day tasks.
Q: Fourier Intelligence introduced a new product named "Fourier X2″ in late January. What is special in the technologies adopted by it?
A: The new Fourier X2 is lighter, with better materials to make it more wearable. The application can be used in research, education, different augmentation application purposes, and industrial use.
Currently, the exoskeleton products in the Chinese market are passive, meaning users can only move in ways predetermined by programs of the exoskeleton equipment. The Fourier X2 has sensors built-in to support self-developed active motion control system. We can understand the patients’ intention of movements to allow our machines to improve performances.
Q: The active motion control module applies enhanced algorithms to better handle the adjustment of users’ movement in real-time. Do you want to use artificial intelligence (AI) technology in the future?
A: Yes. They can be part of the machine learning after we have more data in the future. But as of now, the algorithms are used to optimize the controls including motion control and PID (proportional–integral–derivative) control.
Q: Will Fourier Intelligence develop other kinds of exoskeleton products in the future, like those in the Iron Man, which are used to augment human being’s physical strength?
A: Fourier focuses on the rehab and medical field. That’s why we are not venturing into robotics for other applications.
Q: Fourier raised a RMB30 million (US$4.44 million) series A round of financing in early 2018. How was the fundraising process?
A: It was smooth. We’re working on a new round of financing from three potential investors, hopefully to announce the completion of the new round latest by March or earliest by February. It is challenging during the current time as the expectation from investors is definitely higher.