Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Tokyo University of Science and Founder of INNOPHYS, a Venture Company of a Wearable Robot
As Japan continues to face a falling birth rate and an aging population, a wearable robotic suit named "Muscle Suit(Exo-Muslc®)" to lighten heavy loads is widely used across industries including nursing care, rehab, courier service, agriculture, and logistics. We interviewed Hiroshi Kobayashi, founder of a venture company INNOPHYS that developed the Muscle Suit(Exo-Muslc®) and a professor of mechanical engineering at Tokyo University of Science, about his thoughts on the potential of Tokyo and how technological development should be in order to solve social problems.
Q: Can you give us a brief explanation of your flagship product Muscle Suit?
A: Muscle Suit is a power-assist device that assists people in lifting heavy objects to reduce the burden on the waist. It is also called a “wearable robot” as you wear it like a harness. The suit is helpful in lightening manual labor required in various industries such as nursing care, rehab, agriculture, logistics, manufacturing, and construction. Muscle Suit has sold over 3,000 units so far and we are confident that it is the most popular wearable robot in Japan.
Q: INNOPHYS is famous as a venture company from Tokyo University of Science. Can you share your story and thoughts about launching the company?A: The main focus of my research has been to create practical machine that is useful for people rather than just conducting researches. This is why I have always made a strong effort in joint R&D with businesses. During this process, we came up with an idea of starting a company to commercialize the Muscle Suit, which led to the launching of INNOPHYS in December 2013. Today university labs assist venture companies with the majority of their development, which allows students to work on projects that respond to the actual needs of society. I believe that this is promoting education in the true sense at the same time.
Q: What is your vision for future development?
A: I plan to accelerate the improvement and addition of the Muscle Suit in an effort to make it simpler and easier to use. I have more than 10 ideas in my head right now and would like to transform them into products. My biggest goal is to diffuse the Muscle Suit around the globe. I am an engineer who wants to create products that help others rather than gaining fame by publishing papers as a scholar.
Q: Aging population in Japan, particularly the one in Tokyo is becoming a serious issue. What do you think of the increasing expectations for Muscle Suit?
A: The governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike recently toured a nursing home in Chuo Ward where our Muscle Suit is used to care for the elderly. This indicates that the government has a strong interest in our device. Since the need for assisting the elderly in nursing care and women and the elderly in their work will continue to grow, I plan to provide products that will meet various needs and make a significant contribution to local communities in Tokyo.
Q: And finally, what do you think of Tokyo as a hub for research and development?
A: Tokyo’s big appeal is its environment where many researchers and engineers are developing the latest robotic technologies and a vast amount of information is accumulated. I’m also glad that we have easy access to media and trade shows. Our laboratory moved to Niijyuku in Katsushika Ward from the central Tokyo location Kudanshita in 2013 due to the relocation of the faculty of mechanical engineering of Tokyo University of Science. Since this community has more aging population, the local residents gave a warm welcome to our young college students. I hope that communities in the Tokyo metropolitan area will support the widespread use of wearable robots such as Muscle Suit that will help users perform manual labor and nursing care.