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Robotics Maker Ekso Aims to Help Wheelchair-Bound to Walk

NEW YORK (The Deal) -- Tamara Mena has been in a wheelchair since 2005. But since 2012, she has had the opportunity, at least for short periods of time, to walk again.

Mena, 25, is one of eight ambassadors for Ekso Bionics (EKSO) a company that has produced the Ekso, a robotic suit which makes it possible for some wheelchair users to walk again. The company went public Jan. 15 in a reverse merger transaction and raised $20.6 million in private placement financing.

Forsaken by venture capital funds, the Richmond, Calif.-based company instead raised $30 million before it went public from angel investors including the Chickasaw Indian nation, to produce the Ekso.

The 50-pound suit is worn on the back and legs. It consists of a computer, a pair of lithium batteries, and an aluminum and carbon fiber frame with a series of harnesses worn on the legs. Small motors at the hips and knees power the user's legs. Crutches allow the user to balance and control the suit.

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Mena, who is a motivational speaker and model, says she hopes to one day have her own personal Ekso Bionic suit. For now, however, she is happy to commute from Modesto, Calif., about 90 miles southeast of Ekso's San Francisco Bay Area headquarters, to train with the suit. She has used it about 20 times.

"The suit has given me a chance to do something that I never thought I would ever do again," Mena said. "I can walk and look people in the eye. I can hug people. To have an opportunity like this is a blessing. I'm excited about the future."

In fact, the hug factor caused the Ekso to be redesigned, according to CEO Nathan Harding.

"Originally, we had the power button on the back of the pack, but after we had worked the Ekso with a few people and their families began being involved, we realized that the first thing that Mom was going to do is go in for a hug, and that could shut it all down," he said, laughing.

Having solved that problem and taken Ekso public, the 46-year-old Harding now has his sights set on when the company might shift from the red into the black.

"We think we can be profitable in 18 to 24 months," he said during an interview at Ekso's headquarters at Ford Point, a former Ford car factory that now also houses numerous green businesses and a museum that commemorates the building's previous history as a military vehicle factory during World War II.

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