An Elusive Walk

Amit Goffer develops an exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk

6 August 2009

Amit Goffer never had any interaction with people with disabilities until a 1997 all-terrain vehicle accident confined him to a wheelchair at age 44. Now he has such people always in mind as he applies his years of electrical engineering, entrepreneurial experience, and his knowledge of the psychological effects of his disability to develop an exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk. It’s a breakthrough that had eluded researchers for six decades. The result—ReWalk—has earned international awards for engineering design and invention, as well as a slew of worldwide press from such media outlets as the Washington Post and CNN. And now it is beginning trials in Europe and the United States.

“I’m not a person who looks back. I have too many things to do,” says Goffer, now 56, an IEEE member and founder and CEO of Argo Medical Technologies, in Haifa, Israel.

“I kept asking, ‘How come wheelchairs are the only way for paralyzed people to get around?’” he says. “Researchers had been trying to develop an exoskeleton that restored gait with no success. But I think no one looked at mobility as a whole project—starting with mechanics and ending with the psychology of the person. Scientists forgot a person is involved.”

Argo’s ReWalk is a wearable, motorized, semirobotic suit with a pair of common crutches. The suit relies on computerized motion sensors and signal analysis to enable its user to shift from sitting to standing, and vice-versa, to walk, and to climb up and down stairs. As the person moves the crutches, the upper body naturally tilts forward. Sensors assess the tilt, signaling the computer to drive motors and initiate a step. When the suit stops sensing a tilt, it reverts to a standing position. It runs on rechargeable lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries.

“At first, it was difficult to find funding because no one, including physicians, believed such a device was possible,” Goffer says. “Even when they saw videos of a working model in 2006, they said, ‘I don’t believe it!’”

Today, Goffer says that more than a hundred rehabilitation equipment distributors around the world have expressed interest in ReWalk. He estimates a potential customer base of a million people in the United States and Europe alone. He also predicts that the device will halve patients’ annual medical costs for rehospitalization and support devices.

“A wheelchair is the tip of the iceberg in mobility for a paraplegic,” Goffer says. “ReWalk will replace other expensive devices that help people stand, lift them up stairs, or lift their wheelchairs into vehicles.”

It will also help prevent medical conditions that result from a lack of mobility, such as urinary tract infections and pressure sores, as well as respiratory and cardiovascular problems, according to Goffer.

EARLY INSPIRATION Goffer was a natural-born engineer, “taking apart everything I could put my hands on and putting it back together.” After studying electronics at a vocational high school in his hometown of Rehovot, he headed to The Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, to study electrical and electronics engineering. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1975, served in the Israel Defense Forces for five years, and went on to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Tel Aviv University in 1984.

He earned a Ph.D. in 1990 in electrical and computer engineering from Drexel University, in Philadelphia, focusing on array signal processing. Then came a yearlong postdoctoral research project in radar fusion systems. It was around this time that he joined IEEE to keep up with the field.

In 1991, Goffer returned to Haifa to work on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems at medical equipment developer Elscint. Three years later he founded Odin Medical Technologies, in Yokneam, near Haifa, where he developed the first MRI system for interactive, real-time brain imaging to be used during operations.

The 1997 accident abruptly changed the course of Goffer’s life. He started developing ReWalk at home in 1998, founded Argo Medical Technologies in 2001, and hasn’t looked back. “My goal was to develop a single device that could be used by itself from morning to night,” he says.

ReWalk has already received many honors. In 2007, it won first place in the Israeli Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor’s Industrial Design Awards concept design category, and this year it earned a Popular Science Invention Award.

In August 2008, Argo finished ReWalk clinical trials at Sheba Medical Center, in Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv; last May, Argo began trials at MossRehab, which is part of Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia; and next month, Argo begins clinical trials at the Villa Beretta Rehabilitation Center, in Milan. Goffer hopes to have a pilot production model to market by the end of 2010. Its price is still uncertain.

Ironically, Goffer can’t use his device because his accident left him a quadriplegic, and only people able to hold crutches or a walking frame can use ReWalk. But that solution will come.

“One step at a time,” he says.