SRI Spinoff SuperFlex Targets the Consumer Market with Powered Clothing

Subscribe To Download This Insight

1Q 2017 | IN-4417

In this sense, soft exoskeletons like those under development by SuperFlex are a class of consumer wearables technology, beyond the gadgetry and fashion statement, that provides real value, delivered into a massive market.

Registered users can unlock up to five pieces of premium content each month.

Log in or register to unlock this Insight.


A New Class of Powered Clothing


SuperFlex, a recent spinoff out of the non-profit research center SRI International (SRI), received US$9.6 million in a series of funding to develop a new class of powered clothing. The fundraising effort was led by Global Brain, with contributions from Horizons Ventures, Root Ventures, Sinovation Ventures, and SRI. The money will be used to bring a new class of powered clothing to market, with a full prototype produced in 2017. The ship date for the commercial powered clothing system has not been made available, as of yet. 

A New Class of Exoskeleton


SuperFlex joins the ranks of Apple’s Siri and Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci Surgical System as a SRI International spin-off. Heading up the organization is Rich Mahoney; he was Executive Director of Robotics SRI’s robotics program for over seven years.

The powered clothing SuperFlex is developing has its genesis with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US Department of Defense advanced research organization. In September 2011, DARPA launched the Warrior Web Program with the goal of developing a soft, wearable, exosuit capable of reducing musculoskeletal injury in soldiers, particularly in those areas affected by carrying heavy loads i.e., the knee, hip, lower back, and shoulders. The multi-phase program also called for improving the battlefield performance of soldiers by increasing their carrying capacity and endurance.

Warrior Web Program requirements called for a light, flexible undergarment, capable of actuation and true force multiplication, with very minimal power requirements. It was also mandated that the suit could be donned and doffed quickly and easily. This obviated the use of most types of exoskeleton technologies such as rigid frames, hydraulic, pneumatic or motorized systems, as well as passive, unpowered approaches. Instead, SRI researchers developed a variety of compliant, biofidelic robotic exosuits made of novel materials and powered with soft muscle actuators (among other technologies).

SuperFlex has made available photos of working prototypes (below). According to company officials, the initial version of SuperFlex systems would provide both body support and enhanced strength in the wearer’s legs, hips, and torso. During operation, sensors integrated into the exosuit would determine if rigidity or powered actuation is required and apply the required force necessary. Alternatively, the user can proactively have the suit engage to stiffen or deliver force. According to SuperFlex suit representatives, the suit is capable of learning the wearer’s gait and movement patterns over time, and will optimize its operation accordingly. 

A New Target Market


Initially, exoskeleton research focused on military applications, as the world’s defense departments were the sole source of research funding. Commercialization efforts followed, led by exoskeletons designed for medical rehabilitation sectors (often for wounded veterans), or as mobility aids allowing paraplegics to stand upright, walk, and climb stairs (quality-of-life exos). Exoskeleton technology designed to support manufacturing and logistics work have now been made commercially available, with research ongoing and more products to come.

SuperFlex officials acknowledge that their suit can be used for military, manufacturing, and logistics applications. They emphasize, however, that the company’s initial target market is an elderly, but otherwise healthy population with reduced mobility due to age, or the general population, including extreme sports enthusiasts or others seeking a technology boost to maintain an active lifestyle.

The markets for military, rehabilitation, and quality-of-life systems are sizable. For example, The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 450,000 people per year suffer from a spinal cord injury, many of whom could benefit from exoskeleton technologies. The same holds for stroke victims (15 million per year according to the World Heart Federation), and other mobility disabilities resulting from brain injury, multiple sclerosis, and more. Still, these numbers are dwarfed by overall elderly market, a segment that is increasing both in terms of real numbers and as a percentage of the overall population (see below). For this population, along with much of the general public, “powered clothing” (SuperFlex’s own term) not only increases strength, stability, and stamina when performing everyday tasks, but more importantly it provides for greater independence and a better quality-of-life. In this sense, soft exoskeletons like those under development by SuperFlex are a class of consumer wearables technology, beyond the gadgetry and fashion statement, that provides real value, delivered into a massive market.