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The Incredible Bionic Man
Greg Nichols | Photo: John O’Regan, Brendan Smyth, Mark Pollock, Nick Wolfe, and Ekso Bionics | January 27, 2014
Mark Pollock grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Then he went blind. Then he became a world class adventure athlete. And then he was mysteriously paralyzed. Now he faces his greatest challenge yet.
Mark Pollock stands up—a little unsteadily at first, like a guy recovering from a long night. He exhales, centering himself, the crutch in each hand providing a modicum of support. He’s in great shape—six feet tall, barrel-chested, muscles bulging through a tight shirt. His head is shaved, and the overhead lights in the gym at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland—a home away from home where he works out two or three hours a day, six or seven days a week—are reflecting off his polished cranium. He’s handsome, the kind of guy who can pull it off.
The goal today is 2,200 steps. Pollock exchanges a few words with his lead trainer, Simon O’Donnell. They speak a well-worn shorthand, evidence of a friendship born of intense experiences, like the time they raced to the South Pole together. That was back in early 2009, ten years after Pollock went blind, and one and a half before the fall that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Now Pollock puts one of the crutches out in front of him, tapping it on the ground. He takes a step forward, and as he does, the thin backpack strapped to his torso emits a gentle chirp.
To know Mark Pollock well, to really understand him, you have to divine something about the relationship between man and machine. Watching Pollock walk, it’s obvious that he’s achieved a certain synchronicity with the mechanical. Though he can’t move his legs on his own, he stands and takes steps with the aid of an unobtrusive bionic exoskeleton— a robotic suit worn over his clothes. The backpack, lashed to his torso by what looks like a weight lifter’s belt, connects to a slick tubular assembly that runs down the outside of each leg. These braces keep Pollock upright, bending dynamically to mimic his natural gait as they propel him forward. Pollock actuates each step with the crutches, reaching forward and lightly placing one and then the other on the ground. When he’s found a goodrhythm, the chirps come about a second apart. The only other sound is a gentle electric whir from the exoskeleton’s four motors. Pollock has been called Iron Man and a real-life Steve Austin—the comparisons don’t stretch the imagination.
But even before the pair of events that threatened his independence, before he became the most ambitious user on the planet of a new class of technology that may soon let paraplegics walk again—a technology being developed in an old Ford assembly plant 5,000 miles away in Richmond, California—Pollock had formed a bond with the devices around him. They’ve never defined him, the machines. It’s just that through them, he’s always found the purest ways to express himself.
The engineers developing the technology that’s enabling Pollock to walk again share a similar connection with machines. Last spring I visited Ekso Bionics, the Richmond-based company that’s bringing bionic exoskeletons out of the realm of science fiction. About 45 people—engineers, programmers, assembly workers, physical therapists, and office staff—work in the company’s 44,000-square-foot headquarters overlooking Richmond’s Inner Harbor. The company’s signature Ekso suits hang from tethers around the high-ceilinged factory space, waiting to be worked on. A pair of spindly legs attached to a backpack that contains rechargeable batteries, each suit looks eerily like a new model from Cyberdyne Systems—Terminator Lite.
Employees call this area Base Camp, and it’s where physical therapists can learn how to work with patients who will be using the device. It’s also where a number of those patients— most having suffered spinal cord injuries or strokes—take their initial rehabilitative steps. Pollock logged his first uncertain strides in 2012 in the company’s old headquarters in Berkeley, the first time that a blind person had used the suit. The experience of seeing someone with paralysis stand and walk again is always cause for celebration at Ekso Bionics, and the premises are imbued with an infectious atmosphere of hope. Even the bathrooms teasingly hint at the company’s aspirations—stick figures in bionic suits complement the usual emblems on the door placards.
Nate Harding and Russ Angold, cofounders of Ekso Bionics, are not what one might call spec-sheet engineers, operating in the realm of the conceptual and academic. Rather, they are proud gearheads, and their tinkerer’s approach has helped them advance bionic exoskeleton technology far beyond what was previously possible.
Harding, the company’s chief executive officer, is tall, with black-framed glasses, dark hair, and a guileless smile. He cut his engineering teeth as a kid in a suburb of Houston. “I drank a lot of beer and worked on a lot of bikes,” he recalls with a soft Texas twang, “and by high school it was cars.” Because no one in his neighborhood of carpetbagging oil families spent much time turning a wrench, he put in free labor at a machine shop that built racing engines.
After getting a crash course in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, Harding landed in the UC Berkeley graduate school lab of Professor Homayoon Kazerooni, a pioneer in the field of wearable robotics technology. This was the early ’90s, and prototypes for bionic suits were a far cry from the nimble, slip-on devices of Marvel Comics fantasy. “They were these gigantic gorilla things that seemed pretty scary just to get into,” Harding remembers. With the technology still a long way from maturity, Harding decided to leave academia. He got a job with an East Bay company and started designing and building specialized industrial machinery.
Around that time, Angold was finishing up an undergrad degree in agricultural engineering at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. For a senior project, he and some friends built a competition pull tractor powered by a 12-cylinder Allison aircraft engine, the kind used in early fighter planes. Angold needed a job after graduation, but he wasn’t wild about his prospects. Bay Area recruiters tend to overlook nuts-and-bolts engineers in favor of students who work well at a computer. Angold didn’t even look like an engineer—he has the same bulldog face and thick biceps as his brother, a former Navy SEAL.
When he finally got a call back for an interview, he knew that he had to make it count, so he invited the interviewer— who turned out to be Harding—to campus. “Holy shit,” Harding said when Angold unveiled his plane-engine pull tractor, “I can’t believe you built this thing as a class project.” That’s how Ekso’s future CEO and chief technology officer met—not in a lab or an office, but drooling over a piece of souped-up farm equipment.