Exoskeleton has shades of the Martin Jetpack

By Peter Griffin 15/07/2010

Wellington Venture capitalist Jenny morel today unveiled her latest high-tech start-up and one that has the same sort of high-concept and high risk aspects of her investment in the Martin Jetpack.

The idea behind the Rex Bionics exoskeleton is not unique – many engineering labs, including those of the US Army have been engaged in developing exoskeletons for all sorts of commercial, medical and military applications.

the Rex exoskeleton
the Rex exoskeleton

Rex is designed very much with the disabled in mind as the promotional video below shows. Giving someone who has been in a wheelchair for years the ability to get back on two legs, albeit with limited movement is pretty compelling. Morel, who is serving as Chair and CEO of Rex Bionic has the following uses in mind for the  exoskeleton:

* Stand up to cook dinner at home, or in a friend’s house

* Enjoy the health benefits of being upright and moving around

* Stand and work at a workbench safely, rather than getting a face full of debris

* Socialise with friends around the barbecue

* Play a few games of pool or foosball with friends

* Reach things on the high shelves at home, in the supermarket, or at work

* Stand up in family photos like graduations and wedding shots

How much will the Rex cost? A staggering US$150,000. Such is the complexity of exoskeletons this will remain the domain of disabled people who are incredibly wealthy or can get insurance subsidisation for the Rex. What does it say about New Zealand innovation? Well, according to TVNZ, Prime Minister John Key was pretty enthusiastic at the launch of the Rex today:

Today’s launch was attended by Prime Minister John Key who praised the inventors for helping put New Zealand design at the cutting edge of technology.

Morel’s investment in Rex Bionic follows her backing of the Martin jetpack, a rather bulky backpack that allows a pilot to hover off the ground for an extended period of time – say 30 minutes of thereabouts. Its the only thing that’s really come along since the Bell jetpack that was incredibly compact but only gave you enough thrust for less than a minute of flight. For that reason, the Martin Jetpack has grabbed headlines all over the world, despite sluggish take-off in the sales department. According to an article in the Press newspaper in February however, that could change in the next few years:

The Martin Aircraft Company has signed a $12 million joint-venture deal to start production of the world’s first commercially available jetpack.

The Christchurch-based company has been developing the jetpack for more than a decade but has struggled to find New Zealand funding for commercial production.

Company chief executive Richard Lauder said the joint venture would build Martin Jetpacks at an overseas factory, with the aim of making 500 units generating annual turnover of $100 million within three years.

Like the Jetpack, the Rex is high-concept, hi-tech and very niche in terms of the markets it can tap. Both investments are a bit of a departure from Morel’s previous investments – more conservative software/ICT type companies. There would appear to be more risk in the likes of the Martin jetpack and the Rex from an investment return point of view. But these types of innovations certainly capture people’s imagination. The question now is whether both devices, both a long time in the creating, can become sustainable businesses that really take New Zealand innovation to the world.

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