This article by Violet Tang originally appeared on China Money Network, the best data intelligence platform tracking China’s tech and venture capital markets (access requires subscription).
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 US dollars. Considering that the average disposable income per capita in 2018 was RMB 28,228 ($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 technological constraints: None of the 165 companies, laboratories, and research institutions known to be working on exoskeletons can build a product that can be worn for hours on a daily basis. Imagine buying a several-hundred-thousand-dollar device, but you still need to walk around with crutches—what is the point?”
This creates a vicious circle, in which low usage and high prices keep most consumers watching on the sidelines. That in turn leads to the inability to scale. What Fourier Intelligence wants to do is to make products at the price level of around $20,000, and then eventually lower it to just a few thousand dollars, making it affordable to all disabled people.
At the same time, Fourier Intelligence, which draws 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, which is only one-third as expensive as standard exoskeletons on the market, is equipped with a self-developed active motion control system. The system includes four power units and six multidimensional mechanical sensors installed near the thighs, shins and soles to read and react to users’ movement intentions. In comparison, most products on the market are based on predetermined programming of the exoskeleton to guide the users’ movements.
Zen Koh has served 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 the apex organization of co-operatives in Singapore.
Below is an edited version of the interview.
Q: How has the exoskeleton market developed in China?
A: I think the Chinese market for exoskeletons is huge 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 wheel. We are using the same resources—limited resources, and the 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 need 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 the last three to five years.
Q: How should the Chinese exoskeleton industry innovate?
A: At this stage, exoskeleton developers, which are also generally known as robotics 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 gain a good understanding of the field, then understand our strength and use 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 $70,000 to $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 an exoskeleton can help a person stand up and walk again, that price is not expensive. The real challenge for us is that exoskeletons are not being widely used, due to technological constraints, price, and usability.
The main reason is technological constraints: None of the 165 companies, laboratories, and research institutions known to be working on exoskeletons can build a product that can be used for long hours on a daily basis. 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 buying a several-hundred-thousand-dollar device, but you still need to walk around with crutches—what is the point? The price is considered expensive because it cannot fully serve the needs of patients.
Consider it from a different angle: If the adoption of exoskeletons increases, the price will come down because of the economy of scale. We believe the price will eventually drop to maybe $55,000 or $20,000, or even just a few thousand dollars.
But if the economy of scale is not there, and there’s only low usage, the price will not drop. So it is like a vicious cycle, which together leads to a low adoption rate. I think, in at least five to 10 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 US dollars. In the future, I believe every single hospital, clinic—even small private clinics—and home-based therapist will be able to afford some form of robotic device to help them perform rehab and physical training tasks to achieve better results.
At 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. Just like with air conditioners, washing machines, and smartphones, you will feel significantly inconvenienced 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 recommend solutions based on AI technology. They will become a great tool to facilitate day-to-day tasks.
Q: Fourier Intelligence introduced a new product named “Fourier X2″ in late January. What is special about the technologies it employs?
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.
The current exoskeleton products in the Chinese market are passive, meaning users can only move in ways predetermined by programming of the exoskeleton equipment. The Fourier X2 has four senses in its self-developed active motion control system. We can understand the patients’ intention of movements to allow our machines to improve performance.
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 beings’ physical strength?
A: Fourier focuses on the rehab and medical fields. That’s why we are not venturing into robotics for other applications.
Q: Fourier raised a RMB 30 million ($4.44 million) Series B round of financing in early 2018. How was the fundraising process?
A: It went smoothly. We’re working on a new round of financing from three potential investors, and we hope to announce the completion of the new round by March at the latest. It is challenging during the current time as the expectations from investors are definitely higher.