Hobby Turns Into Life-Changing Venture: Roki RoboticsBy Miriam Bello | Mon, 11/09/2020 - 13:07
Q: What led to the development of Roki Robotics’ two main exoskeletons?
A: It all started as a hobby. When I was a student, I made humanoid robots that played football but the idea was to use this technology for the benefit of people one day. In 2010, we started the exoskeleton initiative with the intention of donating it. A couple of months after we started, an exoskeleton very much like the one we had in mind was released in the US. After that, it took us a week to decide whether to continue the project as there was already a similar product in the market. Finally, we decided that we could innovate even if we offered the same product. At that time, our competition was also very expensive, up to US$120,000 per robot. That said, we decided that our robots would be more accessible and upgraded. Soon after, we started meeting people and friends in wheelchairs. It was then that we made the decision to commit ourselves completely to the company and its cause and it stopped being a hobby. Our goal was to launch a product that was accessible to people, a product that would help them in their daily lives.
Over the course of two years, we delivered our first hydraulic prototype. We obtained funding from the Jalisco state government and created a 56kg robot that was obviously not practical for people. We had a hard time making it but no one who was disabled could use it. Then we entered a project competition to see if we could win but we failed to even reach third place. We discussed again whether or not it was feasible to continue the project and decided that it was. It was a long road because there were limited resources; we had to have two other jobs and also work on this project. Two years later, in 2013, we developed a fully electric exoskeleton weighing only 25kg and we were able to help a person with paralysis to stand up. In 2015, we finally got an investment from CONACYT to build a pilot plant and develop prototypes. We entered into an agreement with Universidad Panamericana in Guadalajara and that is how the first Roki was developed. In 2016, another patient, Jesus Aviña, got up and took his first steps thanks to our technology.
Q: The company now has three divisions: wheels, pro and clinics. What are the core differences between these products?
A: We have designed the different products in our portfolio by listening carefully to feedback from people who have used the exoskeleton. Some of them told us that it took them an hour to walk around a block because they had to walk slowly and mind every step because of the bad conditions of the pavements. Also, although our product is the cheapest in the global market, many people cannot afford it.
Moved by this, Roki Wheels was born: an exoskeleton that allows people with spinal cord injuries to get up and move around on wheels. It is a more practical option since it is all-terrain and allows the patient to change positions, which helps strengthen bones, digestion and joints. It can be carried on a cart and can manage slopes. This project is still in development and we continue to improve it. Roki Clinics, on the other hand, is an exoskeleton that adjusts in just five minutes to the height of any person. Roki Pro is personalized. The latter uses fewer pieces than the others and, therefore, cannot be adjusted. It is lighter, easier to make and cheaper. This project is intended to be part of a future public center where people can go for rehabilitation without having to spend money. There is still a great deal we want to achieve but our focus is always on creating products that can change people's lives.
Q: Roki’s exoskeletons can connect to an app or a smartwatch. How does this benefit users?
A: We developed an application for a Samsung smartwatch. This allows us to calculate how many steps the user took in one day, weekly or monthly. The smartwatch serves mainly to monitor in real-time what the robot is doing. We will soon have the app ready for users to have it on their smartphones. In the long term, we want to monitor the number of steps the user takes according to the surface where he walks.
Q: As a healthcare entrepreneur, what were the challenges you faced when developing the exoskeleton?
A: Raising capital has undoubtedly been one of the greatest challenges. This is a long-term business that involves a high risk for investors. We need confidence that in the long term, projects like this will be profitable and will be among the first in Mexico and Latin America to succeed and break new ground. To expand, we are looking at two options: finding investment in Mexico and scaling up the business to the US or looking directly for investment in the US. In 2021, we will apply again to a venture capital fund in California and will start exploring the foreign market. We still need to demonstrate abroad what we are doing and we believe this will make raising capital easier.
An important step to get there is to be certified by COFEPRIS in Mexico, which will make it easier to obtain FDA approval in the US. In Europe, although it is more difficult to get approval, the technology can be marketed as an experimental apparatus for clinical or laboratory testing.
Q: What are Roki Robotics’ near-term goals?
A: In the short term, we want to sell experimental prototypes to fund the company's operations. We also want to get approval from COFEPRIS for Roki Wheels. In the medium term, we want to raise capital to open a plant and position ourselves in several cities. Currently, if a person wants to try out a Roki, they have to travel to Guadalajara, so we want to position ourselves in strategic points, such as Mexico City and Monterrey. In South America, people in countries like Chile, Colombia and Peru have looked us up to learn more about the project.
Roki Robotics is a Mexican company that manufactures exoskeletons for people in wheelchairs. Its two main products, Roki Wheels and Roki Pro, provide improved mobility to those with spinal lesions