Startup Aims To Prevent Workers’ Back Injuries With ‘Exosuit’ That’s Practical Rather Than ‘Iron Man’ Flashy

Workers at a warehouse about 20 miles south of Albany, New York, wear black motorized backpacks that strap around their chest and thighs. The device, known as an exosuit, weighs 6.5 pounds and helps offload up to 40% of workers’ body weight as they lift 50-pound bags of potatoes and 40-pound cases of bananas for distribution to 86 Hannaford grocery stores in the Northeast. While exoskeletons haven’t taken off as their promoters hoped, Verve Motion, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup behind the exosuit known as SafeLift, figures its lightweight soft design is the answer to helping warehouse workers avoid back injuries as they lift as much as 50,000 pounds of merchandise a day. Injuries from overexertion are a big problem for industry, costing $12.8 billion a year in the U.S., according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by insurer Liberty Mutual. “People targeting the problem earlier … saw Iron Man, and wanted to make it real,” cofounder and CEO Ignacio Galiana told Forbes. “We wanted to make it practical.” Developed largely under the radar since its spinout from Harvard’s Wyss Institute four years ago, Verve Motion told Forbes exclusively that it raised $20 million led by Safar Partners to expand its distribution. That brings Verve’s total funding to $40 million at a valuation that Forbes estimates at more than $100 million. More importantly, Verve has been gaining traction for its exosuits, which cost at least $350 per worker per month, with more than 1,000 units now being used in the warehouses of 20 customers, including Kroger Back injuries are both common for warehouse workers and expensive for their employers, who must cover their insurance claims, which cost nearly $40,000 each, according to the National Safety Council, in addition to lost work days. Customers typically see the exosuits pay for themselves in the first half of the first year in use due to a 65% to 85% reduction in back injuries, Galiana said. Customers also typically see an improvement in productivity because workers aren’t fatigued at the ends of their shifts. “It’s a safety tool that pays for itself,” he said. Human-Centered Design A dozen years ago, Galiana, who is 37 and has a Ph.D. in robotics from Spain’s Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, came to Harvard and teamed up with Conor Walsh, founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab, to work on the idea of a soft exosuit. “Engineers are often excited by the Hollywood idea of an exoskeleton. Make it big, make it strong, make it cool,” Walsh said. But that excitement hasn’t led to much, Galiana said. Instead of trying to design high-tech robots to put on people, the pair wanted to look at how the human body works and design high-tech devices to help them perform specific, difficult tasks better. In 2012, with a five-year grant from Darpa, the Defense Department’s research arm, they started working on a design that might help soldiers walk farther in difficult terrain carrying heavy backpacks. They also developed a wearable brace that could help stroke patients during their rehabilitation. Their goal with both early projects: figure out a human-centered design that helps people do 30% to 40% more without additional strain. “We move and walk very efficiently so it’s conceivable that if you just inject a small amount of energy at a time, you can really help people,” said Walsh, who compared it to running with the wind at your back. While Galiana was still at Harvard, he also began visiting warehouses, where millions of workers process untold numbers of packages and heavy objects every day. He quickly realized how huge a problem that was. “Until then, we had focused on walking. So we developed a new prototype and put it on a few workers,” he said. Galiana is “a Spanish energizer bunny,” said Safar managing partner Arunas Chesonis. “He just can’t stop. As an investor, we like ADD, workaholic CEOs a lot.” Connected to a Wegmans warehouse in Rochester, New York, by Chesonis, Verve developed a new prototype for warehouse workers and tested it out on them. Galiana soon learned that the average worker in a grocery warehouse lifts a total of 50,000 pounds cumulatively over the course of the day. “The job itself is very rough on your body, but the money is great,” as one longtime Ahold worker wrote on job site Indeed in August 2021. “[You] can only be there for so long before your body gives up.” A labor shortage for industrial workers, combined with consumers’ increased demands for speed at the limits of human ability, has led to increasing efforts by Amazon, Walmart The detailed picking-and-packing that warehouse workers do — and that Verve is focused on — is among the most difficult jobs to automate. Verve’s approach of offloading weight is different from the others. “This is just a smart weight belt of sorts,” said Dayna Grayson, cofounder of Construct Capital, who invested in the company two years ago. “It reinforces your body.” Power Steering The exosuit uses sensors to gauge what a worker is doing and applies force in concert with a worker’s own muscles. By using the high-tech backpack, workers can offload 40% of the weight, making a day’s work the equivalent of lifting, say, 30,000 pounds insead of 50,000. “That extra tens of thousands of pounds is where the injuries come,” Galiana said. The concept is similar to how using an automobile’s power steering makes driving so much easier, he said. When workers at Ahold’s facility in Schodack Landing, New York ran an early pilot in 2019, Galiana recalled, the workers tried it on and “their eyes popped out” with amazement. That response gave Galiana and Walsh and other researchers on the team the impetus to spin out a company from Harvard in March 2020. (The related technology for the stroke brace has been licensed to ReWalk Robotics, which has received FDA approval to market it.) The early days of the pandemic might seem a rough time to have started a company, but it also meant that warehouse workers — especially for food and other essentials — were on the job overtime. “We had picked grocery distribution as our first market, and grocery distribution blew up at that time,” Galiana said. With warehouse workers putting in hours of overtime to keep store shelves stocked during the early days of the pandemic, “it was like the tipping point in the industry,” he said. The company raised its first $5 million in funding in March 2020. Traditional exoskeletons are heavy metal objects. To design its exosuit, Galiana and Walsh pulled together a team of apparel designers, roboticists and engineers. One of its cofounders is Nathalie Degenhardt, who previously worked as a technical designer at footwear maker New Balance, and is the firm’s head of functional apparel. At Verve’s offices, industrial sewing machines share space with teams of software developers. “We said, ‘Let’s understand how humans work,’” Galiana said. They measured muscle movement during activities, and designed the device to work with human muscles, modulating its force depending on the person’s movements in real time. Verve plans to scale up operations in the U.S. with both new and existing customers. While its current product focuses on back injuries, it could eventually develop devices to guard against shoulder injuries or knee troubles as well. And as with all robotics companies, the data that it’s collecting on worker safety is likely to become increasingly important over time. “Verve is focused on the big pain points where there’s a return on investment in three to six months,” Walsh said. “I think there’s a pathway to bring costs down and make the systems easier to use. … You could eventually get to the point where they’re available to consumers as well.”