In this series of short interviews, we introduce you to the people behind the great companies in the exoskeleton world. If you want to successfully implement an industrial exoskeleton in your business, you have to pay attention to two points:
1. Choosing the right solution, respectively a solution that is the right fit to the requirements from all 75+ industrial solutions and not the solution that is advertised with the biggest marketing budget.
2. The properly trained and accompanied implementation in the company, so that the solutions are also sustainably intrinsically motivated.
Which solution is the right one is therefore only decided on the basis of technical details, but also which company is trusted to do this. For trust someone, you have to learn a little bit more about the people behind. This is the case because we are doing this interviews.
In these interviews, we introduce you to the people behind the companies, patents and inventions to get to know them better and to understand the drive behind the vision even better.
In the third episode, we talk to Rita from New Stone Soup VT LLC. Rita has been in the exoskeleton bubble since 1990 (the year I was born) and is therefore a real expert who has followed the whole development from the beginning. Thank you for the interview Rita!
DISCLAIMER: Rita: „This interview contains my personal/professional information. It does not reflect the opinions of the military or of any of my clients – past or present.„
Who are you and what do you do?
Rita: „Hi! Rita Vazquez-Torres, former Army Civil Servant. After I retired with 25 years of experience, I formed my own small Woman/Minority Owned Technology/Business Strategy Consulting (and now Hospitality Company) – New Stone Soup VT LLC. I have been doing this for about 12 years. I also am a food/wine and travel blogger, senior citizens/elderly fitness instructor and very passionate mom.“
What, when and where was your first contact with exoskeletons?
Rita: „Back in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s Exohiker was introduced to the Army laboratories I worked for as a civil servant. The product came via the Army Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier, who was considering a small contract for purchase. At the time, the topic of Soldier Load was very much of interest, and the Exohiker (UBerkley) was a novel approach. At the time, I was the Director for the „National Protection Center“, the „Natick Labs“ (Now DEVCOM Soldier Center) division that was in charge of fostering public-private and cross government partnerships and funding dual-use PPE projects. My colleagues at the Natick Labs performed an assessment of the technology. They did not approve the product for use (it was at a very early stage and not ready for prime time), but it opened up a new approach for addressing MSKI’s resulting from Soldier load. Moving along the timeline, we were introduced to the (at the time) Raytheon Sarcos exoskeleton as the transition partners for “DARPA”. Subsequently the Labs funded work with BAE (OLAD) and the, HULC – a partnership between the early EksoBionic years and LMCO – Florida, we had an opportunity to work with the B-Temia KSRD (TALOS program) which was used in the Revision Military Prowler. We were also exposed to the early ROAM Robotics and MAWASHI – funded under the TALOS. We had a front-row seat to all these products as they emerged from their infancy state. Because the NPC helped found what is now the DHS Office of Science and Technology, in partnership with National Institute of Justice, we were able to introduce the concept of exos in their nascent form to the Law Enforcement and Fire communities. Feels like centuries ago, and this was in the early 2000’s.“
How do you think the market will develop in 5 and 10 years?
Rita: „This question assumes that a “market” (or industry) actually exists. In my opinion it does not. Hopefully in the next 2-3 years we could see a more cohesive market evolve, one that will allow for the market concept to progress into an actual product family that is recognizable, visible, accessible and of and of wider consumer use. 5-10 years of potential growth is still, in current form, not really something we can predict, regardless of what all these „consumer market“ reports say (I seriously question their validity and the people who actually conduct their research. So many of these reports use data that is outdated to the point where they talk about products that have died horrendous death at least a decade ago…). In my perfect world, however, a solid Trade or Association that is unbiased and cohesive with credible financial and legal stability will help the community with addressing some of the barriers that holds the market from moving to its next stage of evolution such as wider spread education as opposed to corporate marketing, advocacy, user-community representation, policy advocacy, trends and market analysis, and a platform to exchange professional tidbits. One where we can expect a wider group of representatives and not reuse and repurpose the same speakers over and over again (not dismissing their credentials and their significant contributions to the discipline). I believe that can shift the current state and can become more recognized products. There is a lot of talk about the „exo hype model“, which I contend is a misused and misplaced model – I don’t think the model applies to this technology area… particularly when the consumers don’t know what they are… We need to have a market to create a hype… and not apply the model to the few that actually have implemented exos. I also suspect that powered exoskeletons, because of their “generational appeal” will help break some of the barriers to having exos be recognizable products that are used. At that point I think we could have an actual market and the impactful growth/adoption we would like to see happening.“
Why are there still so few people with inclusion / disabilities without exoskeletons? Even the number of millionaires in wheelchairs is in five figures in Europe.
Rita: „How many days do you have to philosophize on this topic? I’ll give it a shot, but this is a topic farther reaching than this interview. We could have a full year course on this topic alone. Any takers for a doctoral research project? For starters, there is little knowledge and visibility on the products – the difference between EDUCATION and MARKETING. How can people consume something they don’t even know exists? Next, the products have not been fully approved by medical policy and regulatory compliance bodies or insurance regulators. Until there is larger “clearing” and certification of the products for use, people will remain skeptical. Third – even with five figures, the cost/benefit are yet to be clearly proven and the practical use of the systems has to be ironed out. Medical exos for everyday in-home use, depending on the use case, have to be simple to use (and cost-effective), the wearer should be able to do so as independently as possible and safe to be used when alone. These issues have not been overcome yet. Lastly, the “look and feel” factor. Humans are finicky when it comes to how they look. Particularly people in the European five figures club will want to wear something that is functional but the look gives them functionality and aesthetic appeal (has to look cool and sexy.)“
Do you think manufacturers of generalist exoskeletons will prevail or those who adapt exoskeletons / exosuits specifically for logistics, care and individual occupational groups?
Rita: „The jury is out on this one. It depends on the politics of science and the “bedside manners” of the burgeoning market. I say, „TBD“. This sounds like a challenge for the exo producers.“
What are the biggest obstacles / bottlenecks you currently see in the distribution of exoskeletons?
Rita: „There is a bottleneck in distribution? I don’t think the problem is distribution. Go back to the topic of education. If consumers don’t know they exist and what they can do because the voice of users has not been heard, you can’t distribute that which is not increasing in sales. You need demand in order to have supply to distribute. Cost/benefit still must be proven – but in order to be proven, the products have to be known and understood. Hard to do when people don’t know what they are and what they can do, and understanding the benefits (and challenges) of implementing them – because the companies implementing exos are not talking about them outside of the ergonomics community and the users are not visible. It is a secret story amongst those of us in the exo society. It can’t be a story told by ergonomists or a vendor, particularly when vendors [some] will take a pot shot at another exo. For example, in a recent interview, both the interviewer and interviewee went off to knock powered exoskeletons. Not good for the industry. The passive exoskeleton company should not take a shot at their competition nor the powered products. At least not yet, now while the market is trying to develop a personality of some sort. Bad for business for everyone. So I would say, the industry is a bottleneck for itself. Cost is a bottleneck. Lack of understanding what they are, is a bottleneck. Acquisition policies are a bottleneck. Vicious cycle. The story needs the voice of the users, the voice of the companies talking about the cost and morale benefits. The practicality of the use cases. Academics and professional communities can’t tell the story to the people that need to hear it by themselves. It is conceivable that a solid Trade or Association that isn’t a „good ole boy“ network could help. But we aren’t there yet. I say the community is part of the bottleneck.“
What impact can exoskeletons have for the military / police and rescue forces in the future?
Rita: „This is another one of those TBD and we need several months of me teaching the politics of science to make any sense. The military and civil defense markets are two different animals:
a) Military – it depends on what you want them to do and why. How they are classified also matters – are they PPE? Are they „Clothing and Individual Equipment (CIE), are they tools or robotics? How they could impact depends on how they are classified. Then there is the issue of „concept of use“ – what do you want to use them FOR and how. Military is divided in 4 components that further define the occupations. DoD has been testing or developing exoskeletons since the late 1990’s. They are a hard „sell“ (re: the classifications). And when you consider all the items the „art of war or protection“ involves, and how poorly the industry has approached defense because they don’t understand the „Politics, Policy and Science“ triology, they have done themselves a disservice, that makes it harder for defense to take exos more seriously. If you push for a combat use, wearing an exo as they currently exist is dangerous for the operators, so it’s a waste of time and money to even try – TALOS proved that. The “industry” has done a poor job of being able to translate the cost/benefit that exos in general (not by brand but by industry function, task and benefit to the users, cost benefits to the companies adopting the systems) into what it would mean for DoD if military staff – uniformed and civilian – used exoskeletons on a more regular basis. Because users of exos don’t share the knowledge (not the vendors but the companies and the users) – manufacturing, warehouse and logistics, there is very little incentive for the military to use them or want to spend money in trying to find out. There is a feeling of “call me when they are out there, more people are using them and we can clearly see the benefit” as opposed to “don’t call me to get more research money so that you can make your commercial product better, and I still don’t see the value for me”. Exoskeletons have not proven themselves to be worthy of adoption. I have been trying for decades now, and it’s a hard sell. And you have to deal with the exo corporate egos and grudges. Makes it harder. The politics of science can’t be stated enough. Politics, policy and science. Navigate them well, so that the benefits of using these technologies in the right environment can show how they will have a positive impact on reducing pain and musculoskeletal degradation. We know they work. It’s hard to convince the decision makers. The National Academies think they can do this. Good luck. There is a lot more at stake than a National Academies or other esoteric studies to turn this tide. Politics matter.
b) Civil Servants. POLITICS, POLICY, AND SCIENCE. The politics of civil service technologies and PPE are different, and more complex and union-controlled than those of the military worldwide. They don’t translate the same way. Technology is not adopted the same way. Technology is not consumed or purchased the same way. Civil service or emergency response has a culture of tradition you can’t mess with or underestimate. Don’t try to change how uniforms look or feel, no matter how better a capability you may try to add to the products. Thus, trying to determine what the benefit could be is far, very far from being understood. Because (in the beginning) vendors/producers were throwing their products at anything hoping they would stick, – and at least in the U.S.A – failed to understand how emergency response equipment is tested and consumed, they did a huge disfavor in convincing the right people to even consider them. So, TBD. We simply don’t know. Anyone who says they do… I’d like to hear their story of why and how and their grandiose plan. The last thing you want to hear is „My uncle is a fire chief and he…“. Doesn’t work that way. The politics of emergency response technologies (in the U.S.) is a serious political animal.“
Tell us something about yourself that you haven’t revealed elsewhere that surprises us?
Rita: „I’ve been very vocal about what I do, and passionate about. Few people know that I am a very good home cook! Particularly Spanish and Latin cuisine and Italian. I love to eat, thus I love to cook! I’m the „cafeteria lady“ in our household. I’m a terrible dancer, but it doesn’t stop me. I recently wrote about “why” I continue to work with exoskeletons past retirement. I made a promise to a dear friend that his son would walk again… and if his condition could not be addressed by an exo, others would in his son’s name. Sloan Deumite from Baton Rouge – he became the inspiration for my “why”. As for the military – I have dedicated my lifetime work to Soldiers, and I wholeheartedly believe the right product in the right setting will give broken soldiers relief from pain and keep them working longer and safer. Lastly, I am VERY selfish. I have seen what exos can do. And I see the health/mobility of an aging population as young as 5 years older than me (I’m in my 60’s). If I assume that I will live past 75, and still be active, I’d rather NOT have a walker. I would love to have “exosneakers” that look sassy and sexy and are comfortable so that I can walk “El Camino de Santiago” or the Boston Marathon! I would like to be wearing exos that can get me through a Zumba convention dancing or flexible enough for yoga. I would like to continue to be able to cook and clean my house, open jars or a wine bottle and have an exo that can help my hands and my shoulders. I see what these things can do. It kills me that my senior citizens can’t have them yet. It kills me they aren’t affordable, practical and out there. I know they are coming. I trust the producers. Incredible talent. PS, I think the 80’s has some of the best music.“
What’s the best way for you to switch off?
Rita: „Time with my son, cooking, entertaining people, feeding people, Zumba, yoga, massage, dance, travel, and wine/other. Either in that order… or concurrently.“
Who would you like to spend a day with?
Rita: „My son. There is no greater honor on this planet than having raised my child, now a 23 year old young man and soon to be computer engineer AND a great cook too!“
What was your best moment with exoskeletons so far?
Rita: „I have several: 1) The two times Sloan Deumite sent me videos of him walking upright (tethered) with an exo. My world rocked. 2) Watching Parkinsons Patients RUN with a B-Temia KEEOGO. 3) I danced with a Veteran who was wearing a Keeogo at the VA Bronx facility “Stand by Me” 4) I bought the “I GOT LEGS” shirt because HELL YEA, veterans should be able to walk again. They gave their legs/mobility for us. They should get something back FROM US. Every time I have witnessed the look on someone’s face from wearing a medical exoskeleton – it just moves me. The crown jewel of my exo experience is the ASTM ET CoE. I’ve been around the block for several decades. This is the best team I have ever had the honor of working with. Incredible people.“
About New Stone Soup VT LLC:
Headquartered in Hudson, Massachusetts, New Stone Soup VT LLC is a woman-owned small business that does strategic management and outreach, business development, program management, product development and strategic engagement. We match products and services with the right end user or partner.
- Program and technology management support
- Business strategy and outreach development
- Integrated planning, training, business development
- „How To“ doing business with government mentoring for national or offshore companies looking to do business with defense, homeland security, or public safety
- Best business practice mentoring for emerging businesses, Hispanic and women entrepreneurs
New Stone Soup VT LLC
36 Otsego Drive
Hudson, MA 01740