Research News

Vanderbilt-developed exosuit selected for innovation and entrepreneurship showcase in Washington, D.C.

A back-assist exoskeleton developed at Vanderbilt University that blends comfort, ease of use and accessibility for all and is built for maximum range of motion is being recognized by the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities for their annual innovation showcase.

Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering (Vanderbilt University)
Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering (Vanderbilt University)

The maker of the exosuit, HeroWear, will be one of 22 companies from across the country spotlighted as part of the annual event hosted by AAU and APLU celebrating startups and their connections to federally funded university research. HeroWear is the second “Vanderbilt-born” company to participate in the AAU/APLU University I&E Showcase. Vanderbilt’s Office of Federal Relations helps coordinate the university’s participation in the showcase.

“Our Vanderbilt roots are important to us at HeroWear, so being a participant in this showcase is a tremendous honor,” said Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and chief scientific officer and co-founder at HeroWear. “We’re excited about the future of HeroWear and the ability to offer a practical, effective way to reduce back injury risks at work.”

While this year’s in-person showcase has been canceled, the participants will be recognized by the AAU and APLU the week of Dec. 7 through online and media activities.

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows universities, nonprofit research institutions and small businesses the ability to own, patent and commercialize inventions created under federally funded research programs.

“The Bayh-Dole Act allowed us to develop this wearable assistive technology at Vanderbilt, prove out the science and then license it so HeroWear could go all in on this vision of reimagining the future of physical work,” Zelik said. “We were thrilled to bring this first-of-its-kind exosuit product to market earlier this year.”

“Before the Bayh-Dole act, so much federally funded research failed to fulfill the promise of benefiting society, because there was no opportunity to commercialize the output and bring it to market,” said Mark Harris, CEO of HeroWear. “With the current system, we’re able to bring in more outside investment to turn research into an actual usable product that can help thousands—and we hope eventually millions—of people around the world.”

Padma Raghavan, vice provost for research
Padma Raghavan, vice provost for research

“HeroWear is an excellent example of how Vanderbilt University researchers are at the forefront of innovating to help people, which would not have been possible without the Bayh-Dole act,” said Padma Raghavan, vice provost for research. “Thanks to Bayh-Dole, our researchers have the opportunity to rapidly commercialize their early-stage, high-risk inventions to place them in the hands of the people where they can make the essential difference.”

Researched, developed and tested at Vanderbilt, HeroWear’s back-assist passive exosuit, called the Apex, can take more than 50 pounds of strain off the back every time an object is lifted. This can mean reducing thousands of pounds of strain from a worker’s back in a single day.

“One of the leading causes of low back injuries is overexertion—repetitive wear and tear on people in jobs where they do a lot of lifting and bending,” Zelik said. “We were able to figure out a practical, deployable and scalable way to help reduce the risk of injury for workers and improve their quality of life. We proved it in the lab, and now we’re able to offer this wearable exosuit to workers everywhere through HeroWear.”