When talking or writing about exoskeletons as medical devices, it is normally done in a positive tone of voice. A reader researching the medical robotics market should be left with the impression that progress is made and new technologies will soon become available to improve the quality of life for people suffering from various mobility challenges. In the worst cases, authors admit that there are still technological hurdles but all efforts are being made to resolve them quickly.
Some companies have taken advantage of this expected positive reporting of all exoskeleton news. ReWalk and Ekso Bionics have been particularly guilty of competing with each other in making rosy videos where users all but throw their wheel chairs away because now they have access to this or that exoskeleton device. Here is an example from Al Jazeera America from just 6 days ago:
Sorry everyone, but the technology is not quite there. Several exoskeleton companies are responsible for producing videos like the one above: the user of the exoskeleton is ecstatic that they can walk and move around as normal again. Their excitement translates well to the screen and they continue on how much they would like to have the wearable robot for daily use and how in their personal view (not the companies) this is clearly a product ready for mass consumption. Since these are statements by a user, and not an official company spokesperson, no one comes in front of the camera to say that the technology is just not quite there yet. Current exoskeleton operation requires constant and qualified supervision, speed and stability are still real issues. As long as everyone feels positively about the future of exoskeleton technology, selling a dream of the future versus explaining current design limitations has been the mantra of more than a few publicity departments. For the first time today however, we have a chance to see some of the repercussions of relying too heavily on positive sentiments rather than facts.
Yesterday, financial website Seeking Alhpa published the most venomous, scathing article about an exoskeleton company I have ever seen. The article, “Ekso Bionics: Strong Sell With -92.3% Downside On Fraud Arrest, Product Failure And Paid Stock Promotion” (or Ekso-Bash) uses the same style of highly charged and emotional arguments, but with a dark and gloomy twist. No, Ekso Bionics is not a strong sell and they haven’t arrested any of their employees. The author of the article uses the lack of disclosure of the technical and financial limitations of Ekso Bionics to generate fear and confusion. This absolutely same approach could be applied to nearly all entities dealing with exoskeletons and wearable robotics (one major exception being Rex Bionics, they have been very diligent in highlighting what they can and can’t do with their current exoskeletons).
Perhaps because Ekso Bionics is a small company, the Ekso-bashing article spread quickly through e-mail alerts and google news. It must have had at least a small contribution to a -38% EKSO stock tumble before climbing back to a -21% at $1.36 for the day (Yahoo! Finance). If the author of the toxic article had a short on Ekso Bionics they could have made a few dollars. More importantly than stock price, the image of Ekso Bionics has been seriously tarnished and it will take time and effort to restore its public perception. The problem here is that a few more articles like this, targeting different businesses, could end up damaging the overall positive public perception of the exoskeleton systems industry.
Here are the main points of the Ekso-Bash article and how wearable robotics and exoskeleton companies can avoid finding themselves in similar situations:
The Ekso-Bash article starts off by attacking the trust between company and the common man. Adam Gottbetter, a securities lawyer and reverse merger advisor worked with Ekso Bionics in 2013. You can find the press release at the sec.gov: SEC Charges New York Lawyer and Two Promoters With Market Manipulation. The Ekso-Bash article quickly arrives at the conclusion that even though Ekso Bionics is not mentioned anywhere, it must also be fraudulent by association and if it is not true, why hasn’t Ekso Bionics issued a statement? While the “guilty by association” argument is laughable, it shows that the public relationship departments for all exoskeleton companies need to be proactive in maintaining their positive image.
Now that Ekso-Bash has implied that Ekso Bionics is filled with silent crooks it moves on to show that other organizations are distancing themselves away from the company. This is entirely Ekso Bionic’s fault as they have been extremely vague on their collaborations with Ottobock, Boston Dynamics and Lockheed Martin. The Ekso Bionics – Lockheed Martin dysfunctional relationship in particular has become an embarrassment. The two partnered on the HULC, and the MANTIS, but Lockheed went ahead and continued working on the project to produce the FORTIS. Ekso Bionics reported that while it was interested, it did not have the resources to work on industrial exoskeletons (at the time), however recently it has come up with its own version of the FORTIS, the Ekso Works while claiming partial ownership of the FORTIS (see Op-Ed, Ekso Bionics Reveals New Exoskeleton For Industrial Use Similar To FORTIS). The Ekso-Bash article here is correct in its criticism.
So now that Ekso-Bash has portrayed a company filled with crooks that no one wants to work with, it moves to attack the Ekso exoskeleton itself. This was done with extreme ease since Ekso Bionics very rarely discusses the limitations of its own products. It is as if a person is strapped in an exoskeleton and after just a few hours of training, BOOM, they get to walk again! The lack of information on facts vs fiction about exoskeletons is then further exploited by cherry picking real or perceived capabilities from devices around the industry. Device B can do something better, while C can do something better, etc… This shows that the exoskeleton industry is now mature and large enough that it needs its own wikis, resources, forums and clubs where information can be merged and presented to the public.
At this point the Ekso-Bash article gets carried away and shows the damage it can do, it goes from bashing Ekso Bionics to bashing the entire exoskeleton industry. The question is asked, why bother with wearable robots when we can “already” cure people with stem cells. Again, we need to have more resource websites that show people what exoskeletons can and can’t do and how that compares with current and future technologies. Broad statements that paint the whole industry in an extremely negative light is something new but now needs to be actively combated through education.
Ekso-Bash makes one more stab at the company (the imaginary Ekso Bionics that is filled with crooks that no one wants to collaborate with and has a bad product that should have never been made). According to Ekso-Bash, hospitals and rehabilitation centers also do not want to work with Ekso Bionics. Exoskeletons normally are used on 4-6 month trial basis. It is obvious that different clinics will want to experiment with different suits.
The Ekso-Bash article paints a bleak picture of Ekso Bionics that is so negative that it should fill anyone with dread if they owned stock. The article exploits Ekso’s lack of open communication, the limitations of current exoskeleton technology, the ignorance of the common investor to current exoskeletons in development, and how they stack against each other and competing technologies and uses it to create fear and confusion. The Ekso-Bash article for the first time shows the clear need to create centralized exoskeleton systems educational material.