Roam Robotic’s Tim Swift, Founder, and CEO with Sujit Dike, VP Health
San Francisco-based startup, Roam Robotics, is advancing robotic exoskeleton technology to meet the needs of not only the military and performance athletes, but people with osteoarthritis in everyday life. Their novel design and technology mirrors trends in digital healthcare to bring better care to the patient not only in the institutional setting but to the home or wherever the patient is. I connected with Founder and CEO, Tim Swift, and VP of Health, Sujit Dike, to learn more about their healthcare strategy and expansion plans.
What is the genesis of Roam Robotics?
[TS] – The Roam story started about 14 year ago when I was building an exoskeleton to power mobility and deliver improved and real change to patient’s lives. I have seen it happen before, at Ekso Bionics (where he was lead inventor); it was a great experience. I saw our team deliver power to real people to help them stand for the first time. But at the end of the hour, we would remove the robot and the patients would go back to the wheelchairs like it never happened. The benefit was fleeting. I wanted the robot to go out the door and stay with them. The tool set for that exoskeleton did not exist within traditional robotics. It’s not about building cool robots; I was already doing that. I l left Ekso to make something that would be useful in changing people’s lives every day. I have been working with a brilliant team committed to the same goal for the past 7 years and we are building a new, lighter weight and low-cost exoskeleton that goes with you out the door.
Sujit, what convinced you to join the Roam team in 2020?
[SD] I was very impressed with Tim and the world class quality of the engineering team. The Roam team has made amazing progress in building a robotic wearable platform for a wide range of applications; we are breaking the barriers of access and portability. And we intend to be a part of the disruptive change in the health convergence of medical devices, with robotics, AI and data.
What unmet need is Roam likely to fulfill in the near and/or long-term?
[TS] There is an immediate unmet need in healthcare; we want to move the needle on pain. When pain is limiting the quality of life, we want to support people to live the life they were meant to live. That is the reason we are here. There really are few options out there in the marketplace. [SD] The immediate opportunity involves the aging population. In the US alone, knee osteoarthritis affects 1 in 5 adults above 45 years in age. And millions fall in the treatment gap: when conventional approaches fail and before patients undergo invasive surgery. In the interim, they experience years of significant pain that limits daily activities. Patients continue to seek alternatives to surgery, which can be very expensive too. Developing more cost-effective and non-invasive solutions to help stay active and reduce pain is critical for OA patients. This is where Roam technology can provide an effective option for patients and physicians.
Tell us about the Roam technology.
[TS] Instead of being dominated by metal and motors, we deploy systems built from light-weight materials such as plastics and fabric; we leverage air compression to deliver high powered systems. The conventional exoskeletons are awesome robots, but they are not mobile enough to live outside the lab. It is a myth that batteries are the problem limiting traditional exoskeletons – this is misguided thinking. Batteries today are such a small portion of current market leading exoskeleton systems, often making up 10-20% of their mass. Even if power was removed from the equation by being connected to a wall, the number of conventional systems that can deliver on the weight, speed, and power density that is required for how dynamic normal life is, stands firmly at zero. This is not due to lack of effort; conventional systems are working with a well optimized and understood tool set and have spent the last two decades working towards this goal. At a certain point, you must accept the physics, you cannot put enough power at a low enough weight on the body with the same toolset as industrial robots. Roam is based on a realization that to get a different result we must make things a different way. We do not have the benefit of 60 years of robotic infrastructure, but we are already able to do things no one has ever seen and we continue to see real lives improved by what we make.
Why is Roam breakthrough and differentiated from other related technologies?
[TS] Roam Robotics allow for higher powered density. We seek to deliver more power with less weight. We bring increased power with the estimated weight of a normal knee brace or roughly 2 pounds. With a conventional system, you have to use the increased power to move the extra weight of the device and your body; with Roam you have more power to move your body. [SD] It allows you to use the Roam knee device in the same way you would use a normal knee brace, but with the added benefit of intelligent support for performing daily activities such as walking, going up / down stairs and kneeling. Additionally, our knee device will be available at a cost that makes it accessible to a large patient population.
What is your vision for Roam products in the healthcare setting?
[TS] We want to move the boundaries of human performance. Right now, we are looking at the knee; we see a concrete benefit up and down the spectrum of OA disease progression. Those early on the spectrum that have pain that interferes with the active lifestyle they want to lead; while those that have more progressed OA may be looking to remain independent with everyday tasks; we can meet the needs of people on the continuum. Our technology can span helping the weekend warriors who might not think of themselves as even having OA but want support on the ski slopes to those that have all different levels of mobility and disease progression.
What about other applications outside of OA for the knee?
[SD] – We are building a platform that can put power into the body at a weight and cost that is practical and useful for everyday life. This capability has a large set of potential ways we can improve lives and our goal is to do exactly that. Immediately, there are a number of other applications planned that we are beginning to evaluate. One that we are very excited about involves post-surgery rehabilitation.
Tell us about the highlights in building a novel, new robotic technology?How is your program different from other accelerators in the medtech space?
We are the only program singularly focused on medtech startups led by under-represented groups. We [TS] One of the most impressive things was when we got our user data from our skier study. There was a measured reduction in knee pain. We had dreamed that this would be the case and it was a great experience to see science translate into data. In the past, with exoskeletons, we used the suck test – if you used the exoskeleton product and then don’t use the word suck to describe a part of your experience – then it passed the suck test. This is a surprisingly hard test to pass for a wearable robot. With Roam we are moving to a “magic test” – we want to create an experience that is magical. When we got this skier data, we felt like we were on the right path to creating this magical experience. [SD] While novel technology development itself has a “cool” factor, it is far more inspiring and satisfying to see its impact on users. Early results from an ongoing pilot study indicate that people are experiencing significantly less pain and are making fewer compromises in performing daily activities such as going up & down stairs and walking. Many express joy and amazement after trying the device. They realize that they don’t have to stop being independent and active because of pain: going to a grocery store or for long walks for example. Our team is seeing the potential that our technology has to transform patient’s lives.
Could you share more about the Roam team and advisors?
[TS] I can’t stress enough about the excellence of our core team. We have a world class team who are working to build solutions for the real world. We also have an amazing board; for example, we have General Pace, who served as the 16th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has been instrumental in helping us with our military applications. [SD] We continue to build an amazing network of orthopedic / sports medicine surgeons and commercial advisors for our healthcare portfolio. They include Dr. Hogan [UPMC], Dr. Amanatullah, [Stanford], and Dr. Jamali [Joint Preservation Institute]. Recently, we onboarded Josh DeFonzo [Founding team and former COO of Auris Health and CEO of Lux Capital], and Dr. Jeffrey Krauss [ Chief Medical Officer of Hinge Health] as commercial advisors.
Aside from your health product you also have products for the military and outdoor sports; tell us about them.
[TS] We got our start building devices for the highest performance application imaginable through our work with military customers. Through this work we have worked closely with first responders and special forces. We wanted to work with the best of the best – supermen and superwomen. In early testing with our performance product, we have seen 2x improvements in strength and endurance maneuvers across a population of users. We are seeing even more pronounced results when we work with individual operators for specific missions. The most amazing part is that, when wearing the device, most users don’t believe us that they are being supported by the device. The device “disappears on them” as they maintain their mobility and range of motion. The wearer only registers what the device has done when they see how much they are carrying or how many reps they completed with the device. These capabilities are very useful not just because of what they do for our performance customers, but because our platform approach allows us to use these results to extend the capabilities of our health products.
How has COVID-19 impacted Roam?
[TS] The pandemic did not stop us from proceeding full steam ahead with our medical and military exoskeleton products. Pain doesn’t stop because of COVID. We received interest from 5,000+ patients in one week to participate in our early studies in the San Francisco area during the pandemic. And we were able to move forward with conducting the pilot study of our healthcare product. This reinforces our beliefs that there is strong interest in this technology. On the flip side, we had to pause our outdoor product launch of Elevate because of the closing of the ski resorts. We had over 1,000 unique ski experiences recorded, very strong customer response, and zero injuries last season alone. We are still committed to our outdoor product and are excited to deliver products to these customers in the future.
What’s next for Roam in 2021?
[TS] For us, we seek to put more Roam products on people. We will scale. On the Performance front, we are working with first responders and special operations forces to get more products to them. [SD] We plan to have our first product under the Health vertical, Ascend, for sale in in select geographies in 2021. It will be for consumers with knee pain due to natural or traumatic osteoarthritis, knee instability and/or weak quadriceps. We also plan to conduct additional clinical studies and we intend to expand to other applications, such as post-surgery rehabilitation.
Any requests to the medtech community?
[TS] We are very interested in adding partners such as investors who have experience in this space and can help expand internal knowledge. Secondly, we would like to add to our strategic network with different stakeholders – providers, payers, physicians, clinicians and unique large customers such as self-employed insurers. [SD] The success of any startup depends on high quality talent. We are looking for strong talent with a focus on orthopedics & orthotics in preparation for our Ascend launch. We are seeking those that are interested in joining us at this exciting time and being part of game changing innovation in OA and healthcare market. More About Roam Robotics – https://www.roamrobotics.com/ Please reach out via email@example.com
More about Roam Robotic’s Tim Swift, Founder, and CEO with Sujit Dike, VP Health
Tim Swift, Founder and CEO – Dr Swift has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley with a focus on wearable robotic devices and has spent the last 15 years developing exoskeletons for commercial applications. Prior to founding Roam, he was a lead inventor of Ekso at Ekso Bionics which is the market leading exoskeleton device currently in use across the US and Europe for paraplegic mobility and post-stroke rehabilitation. Sujit Dike, VP Health – Sujit has spent 17 years in Medtech and Genomics driving product innovation and building commercial organizations that deliver disproportionate growth. Prior to Roam, he worked as an Orthopedics & General Surgery executive at Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices and at genome sequencing pioneer Affymetrix. Sujit has an MBA from the Wharton School, and engineering degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He is the lead and co-author of 9+ peer-reviewed publications in leading scientific journals including Nature Genetics, Genome Research and Science.