Japan start-up seeks to expand abroad with exoskeleton business

A start-up founded by a researcher at Tokyo University of Science that developed a wearable exoskeleton to support heavy lifting is hoping to make further inroads overseas in nations that have aging populations like Japan.

Set up by Hiroshi Kobayashi, a professor at the university, in 2013, venture firm Innophys Co., hopes its products will be used in the care and farm fields in Europe as well as China and South Korea, which face similar age-related social issues to Japan.

"Demand for assistive suits will get greater and greater as populations age. We've got a chance at being top in the world," said Innophys Executive Officer Masaru Yoda.

The firm has a domestic market share of some 70 percent. It launched its Muscle Suit in 2014 and as of April 2021 had sold around 20,000 suits.

The firm's exoskeletons provide both back and arm support. They use artificial muscles made from rubber tubes wrapped in a nylon mesh that expand when filled with compressed air. This causes the nylon to make the tubes shorter, producing a powerful pulling force that can aid manual tasks requiring strength and ease pressure on the back when lifting heavy objects.

The suit, which is worn like a backpack, can significantly alleviate strain in tasks relating to caregiving, agriculture and factory-based heavy labor, and is a useful tool for preventing potential work-related accidents, according to the company.

Functioning without motors, the products are light, weighing around 4 kilograms each, and the company was able to keep the price down to around 150,000 yen ($1,100).

Innophys made inroads into Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao in 2020 and now has sales agents in 17 countries and regions including China, South Korea, Germany and France.

The products are popular among South Korean farmers who need help manually pulling up Chinese cabbage and radishes, while in Germany they are more likely to be used in manufacturing and by employees of logistics firms.

While Innophys has rivals in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere, it says its relatively inexpensive exoskeletons are well regarded for their back support.

In a bid to boost its name recognition, the firm has been joining trade fairs and seeking introductions from the government-linked Japan External Trade Organization, as well as utilizing its social networking services to sell to more regional businesses.

Japan's market for assistive suits is expected to grow in value from 3.6 billion yen in 2019 to 14 billion yen in 2030, according to market research firm Fuji Keizai Group Co.

Although the overseas market was much smaller in 2019, standing at 600 million yen, it is projected to balloon 10-fold to 6 billion yen in 2030.

© Kyodo News