My typical workday doesn’t involve much heavy lifting, beyond toting a four-pound laptop.
But on a recent visit to Verve Motion, a Cambridge startup, I was pointed toward a blue plastic pallet on the ground and told to start hefting boxes that weighed 30 pounds or more. I was moving them from the pallet to a set of metal shelves — a simulated warehouse setup. Every time I bent over to pick up a box, though, my back muscles got a little boost on the way up, thanks to a backpack-like device that Verve sells.
Verve Motion refers to the device as a “soft exosuit” — a wearable that is intended to make physical labor far easier. And since April 2020, it’s been delivering them to customers who run warehouses. One customer, grocery store operator Ahold Delhaize — the parent of Stop & Shop and Hannaford — already has 350 exosuits in use.
Verve Motion has assembled a team with a wide ranger of expertise than most startups ― engineers from robotics companies, marketers from the world of 3D printing, and designers from New Balance. Not only do employees labor over circuit boards and code, but there’s a line of four sewing machines in the company’s office for crafting exosuit prototypes.
The company’s technology was born inside the Wyss Institute, a Harvard research center. Some of the work done there was focused on helping people suffering from the effects of a stroke or Parkinson’s disease walk and build endurance. (Elements of that work have been licensed to ReWalk Robotics, a Marlborough company.) Verve is focusing on how the exosuit technology can be used in warehouses and logistics centers, where workers may lift 40,000 to 50,000 pounds in a single day, says CEO Ignacio Galiana.
“You have workers who get home and spend their off hours having to lay down on the sofa,” Galiana says. “And back injuries are the most common problem they deal with, which leads them to miss work,” or to search for other types of jobs. He says that Verve’s product can dramatically reduce injuries, and also help companies attract and retain workers by making physical labor a bit less demanding. “We can make a 20 pound box feel like 12 pounds,” Galiana says.
In less than a minute, he dons one of the Verve devices, clicking it together at the front of his chest. There are straps that drop down from the backpack portion, and cuffs that get Velcroed around his upper thighs. A thick red nylon strap runs down from the backpack, in line with Galiana’s spine, to the lower portion of the device. Galiana compares the weight and size with a Camelbak-type backpack that holds water.
A battery, motor, and sensors inside can tell when the wearer is leaning over to pick something up. When the wearer rises, the red strap serves like a supplemental muscle, tightening up to take some of the work away from the person’s actual back muscles. Affixed to the left shoulder strap is a controller with three buttons: off, medium assist, or full assist. The battery lasts 14 hours, Galiana says. At a typical customer location, Verve installs a set of lockers where 25 to 50 of the devices can charge overnight, and be checked out by workers who want to use them.
The device also reports data about how it has been used, which means it can analyze whether someone might be twisting or bending in ways that aren’t safe — and perhaps could use a reminder or additional training on better lifting habits. At day’s end, each worker gets what Verve calls a “SafeLift score” — it shows what percentage of their lifts were “considered safe from a movement perspective,” Galiana says, as well as how much total weight they’ve lifted. “Everyone is a little competitive.”
Galiana says there are more than 10 warehouses and distribution centers using the company’s product, and hundreds — not yet thousands — of vests out in the world. He doesn’t want to be specific about pricing, but says that customers “subscribe” to the Verve device and software, with prices sliding down the more units they lease. The current cost, Galiana says, is several hundred dollars per month, per unit. Since its 2020 founding, Verve has raised $20 million from investors.
Among them is Eric Paley of the Cambridge venture capital firm Founder Collective. “If they do their job right, I think they have a shot at becoming effectively a hard hat,” Paley says, for millions of people whose work involves loading or unloading trucks, and moving boxes in warehouses. (Galiana says he eventually envisions expanding to other tasks, like baggage handling at airports.)
“Today, companies just accept worker turnover, and workers compensation claims, but the data shows that Verve can radically decrease injury, and turnover falls significantly,” Paley says. His firm has also funded startups that include Whoop, the Boston company that makes a wristband that monitors fitness and health, and the transportation app Uber.
Robotics industry analyst Dan Kara, a vice president at WTWH Media, notes that hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into robotic systems that help warehouses operate more efficiently, but the amount of money that has gone into technology to support human workers “is not even close.” Kara notes that Verve will compete with other makers of exoskeletons such as Ekso Bionics, Sarcos, and German Bionic.
But Kara highlights a key question about the way companies have been investing to automate warehousing and shipping operations: they’re spending to increase the speed of delivery and reduce the cost, so that their overall operations can be more profitable and get orders to customers quickly. Will they spend as aggressively on technologies like Verve’s, designed to keep workers safe, and cut the costs of lost time and worker’s comp claims? That’s still TBD.
Wearing the Verve vest made me feel like I’d acquired a skosh of superpowers ― feeling the zip of a motor and external “muscle” helped me straighten up with a box in my hands. (I instantly started thinking about how nice it would be to rent a Verve vest from Home Depot on the days in the summer and fall when I have to move window air conditioners to and from my basement.) I noticed a can of Lysol on the floor, and tried to pick it up. Interestingly, since the Verve vest doesn’t know the weight of the object someone is lifting, I got the same boost as I would’ve with a 50 pound box.
I felt like I could’ve kept moving boxes forever, building pallet after pallet of merch, filling truck after truck. I was the robotically-enhanced Scott Kirsner, good at least until my batteries needed a recharge. Just call me the Doc Ock of the loading dock.