For quadriplegics, losing the use of their legs is not the end of their problems, according to ReWalk CFO Kevin Hirschberger.
“People with spinal cord injuries who are paralyzed below the waist have the same physical issues as everyone else, such as gaining weight if they eat too much and don’t exercise.
“With our ReWalk exoskeleton, patients can get the exercise their body needs, preventing severe conditions like heart problems, osteoporosis, kidney disease, and much more,” said Hirschberger.
Testifying to that was one of the first Israelis to be equipped with a ReWalk. Radi Kauf was an IDF soldier in the Second Lebanon War, and was severely injured by terrorist gunfire in 2006. Kauf, a member of Israel’s Druze community, was selected as a pioneer for ReWalks’s technology by Dr. Amit Gopher, inventor of the ReWalk who is himself a quadriplegic.
“There’s no question that I am a lot healthier with ReWalk than I would be otherwise,” said Kauf. “All the doctors say that a lack of exercise is an important – maybe the most important – factor in all sorts of diseases, from obesity to heart attacks. Many people around the world would benefit from ReWalk simply for the ability the system gives them to exercise, helping them to avoid other severe medical problems. I myself have experienced a significant improvement in my digestion, and I am able to go to the bathroom without a problem – which I was not able to previously.”
ReWalk allows independent, controlled walking similar to that of an able-bodied person, with computers and motion sensors doing the “heavy lifting.” The system controls movement using subtle changes in center of gravity, mimics natural gait and provides functional walking speed, enabling even paraplegics to move independently — and even to run marathons, like a paralyzed woman did in 2012.
The system has been extensively studied and tested in Israel, the US, and Europe, and is in use by people around the world who participated in ReWalks’ beta program. In addition to providing wearers with the ability to stand and walk independently, clinical studies show that using the ReWalk provides significant mental health benefits as well, with users having a much more positive self-image as they gain independence and control over their movements.
ReWalk was personally reviewed by US President Barack Obama on his visit to Israel in 2013. The system was part of a special exhibition called “Israeli Technology For a Better World” at the Israel Museum, which highlighted seven of Israel’s most important tech contributions.
Hirschberg and Kauf were speaking at the annual conference of Oppenheimer Israel, the local branch of the international investing organization. Speakers at the conference include top officials in some of Israel’s most successful start-ups and veteran companies, who give a rundown of what they do and how they make (or intend to make) money doing it. After the presentations, it was time for Q&A with some of Israel’s top investors – who spare no feelings with the probing and challenging queries they present.
Hirschberg himself had to answer some of those questions – specifically on how the company plans to expand its sales. So far, fewer than 100 systems have been sold around the world, a number that many in the investment community would be more than acceptable if ReWalk were still a start-up. But with the company going public last year with an initial valuation of nearly $400 million – twice what company officials believed they could raise on the NASDAQ stock exchange – ReWalk has obviously graduated from start-up status.
Not to worry, Hirschberg said; sales will materialize in due time, probably within the next five years, as a number of factors come together that should make it easier for the company to make money. Obviously, at $76,000, the ReWalk is too expensive for any except the most wealthy, but insurance companies are discovering that, despite its high price tag, ReWalks can save them money, said Hirschberg; the ReWalk’s return on investment in savings on treatment and medicine that lack of exercise costs is substantial; after just a few years, insurance companies find they pay less for the ReWalk system than for the treatment the secondary effects of paralysis bring on.
Rehab centers and hospital rehabilitation facilities are also an important market for ReWalk, said Hirschberg. “Ninety percent of all patients go to rehab, so we see those centers as natural customers for our technology. The opportunities are enormous.”
ReWalk is one of those great ideas that takes a bit of time to catch on, said Hirschberg – but when it does, the sky will be the limit. “Keep in mind that this technology is brand new, and that there are only a few companies that have developed exoskeletons like this – and currently, we are the only ones with FDA and European approval.”
That it will take the world time to get used to ReWalk is understandable, said Hirschberg; the idea of the paralyzed walking has never really been entertained before.
“For 2,000 years wheelchairs have not changed,” said Hirschberg. “When you consider the health benefits of the ReWalk, added to its ability to provide mobility to those who were unable to move on their own, and the increasing willingness of insurance companies to fund the systems, the opportunity is very strong.”