The Press, July 2010

Inspiring was the only word to describe last week’s unveiling of the Rex Bionics robotic exoskeleton in Auckland. Not only for Rex’s potential to transform the lives of paraplegics, but as yet another example of Kiwi ingenuity.

You could be forgiven from reading media reports that all the company has to do is start cranking the robots out of the factory and money will come pouring in.

The people behind the company, including venture capital company No 8 Ventures, will understand that inventing Rex is only half the job. Working out how to sell a good number of them at a profitable price is the tough challenge remaining.

After seven years of development and $10 million in investment, Rex isn’t the first robotic exoskeleton cab off the rank. General Electric made one for the US Army in the 1960s, and other giant companies like Lockheed, Raytheon and even Honda have had a go. An Israeli company called Argo Technologies have developed an exoskeleton called ReWalk which is undergoing clinical trials and seeking FDA approval in the USA.

What stands out about the Rex is that it offers a typically Kiwi twist, not focussing on being the absolutely bleeding edge but being a practical tool. Much like another Number 8-backed initiative, the Martin Jetpack, the Rex is an attempt to deliver a usable version of a previously futuristic technology.

As Popular Science Magazine said of the launch, “At $150,000 USD, Rex is by no means inexpensive, but it does offer wheelchair users a practical and (almost) readily available means of getting out of their chairs.”

Not being first doesn’t matter either - it is who can provide the best complete solution to the market need that counts. It is not the absolute highest-tech product, or the one with all of the features, but the best answer to the customer’s particular problem that wins.

Infamous scooter The Segway was launched nine years ago, but has yet to record the number of sales originally forecast for it in the first nine months, according to an article in the Economist Magazine. It was, and is, a stunning piece of technology, but it simply didn’t fit into the lives of the customers it was aimed at – people battling the busy streets of large cities.

As the Economist concluded “there is a big difference between coming up with an idea and making it happen.”

What I like about the Rex is that they have focussed on a specific group of customer’s – paraplegics, and describe their product as a complement to a wheelchair (at least at this stage in the lifecycle of the product). They haven’t pitched it as all things to all people, an ‘Ironman’ come to life.

So congratulations to Rex’s founders for their courage and vision. It is just what the government was seeking to foster with the research science and technology strategy announced at the recent Budget. This was reinforced by the attendance of Prime Minister John Key at Rex’s launch.

The government’s initiatives are very positive for the country’s innovation-based companies, but are an incomplete approach as they are based on the assumptions that businesses already have a lot of established commercialisation capability for turning new research ideas into export dollars.

Despite some obvious success stories, we don’t have a great record at commercialisation i.e. finding people to sell inventions at a profit. That New Zealand hasn’t yet built a lot of large scale technology-based businesses, with a few outstanding exceptions, is evidence of this commercial weakness.

Taking a product to market is as much a process as the scientific method. Success commercialising a concept is highly dependent on a firm’s ability to focus, intimately understand their market and build an effective capability to engage on the customers’ terms.

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