When locally renowned dancer Teresa Honaker took her first steps on the one-year anniversary of her paralysis Jan. 11, she did so wearing a bionic suit developed by a company that Bear River High School graduate Russ Angold helped start.
Angold is the cofounder of Ekso Bionics, which took exoskeleton technology developed to lighten soldier’s loads in combat and applied it to people like Honaker.
“It was pretty cool to think it was coming full circle,” Angold said, “that the technology is available to help somebody from home.”
Ekso has more than one Nevada County connection. Some of them are like something out of a movie — including Angold’s.
The 1995 Bear River graduate grew up as the third oldest of seven boys. He was class president and on the school’s state championship football team, of which he was the team captain, he said.
As if that isn’t story-book enough, Angold also married his high school sweetheart — the cheer leading captain. The couple is still together with three children of its own.
But it was Angold’s involvement in the school’s agricultural program that led him down the path to bionics.
“That is one of the things that drove me into engineering,” Angold said.
Angold studied Ag mechanics, which is a hands-on program that prepares students for careers in skills that include construction, woodworking, electrical systems, plumbing, cold metal work, concrete and welding technology, among others.
“The things we’ve learn in Ag mechanics are still with us today,” Angold said. “That hands-on approach to doing something and fixing something — having that skill set that others take for granted — a lot of people miss that.”
After high school, Angold attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he studied agricultural engineering.
“My intention was to always be in the mechanical engineering side of things,” Angold said.
After his 2000 graduation, it was again his background in the agricultural community that played a part in his first job. Nathan Harding, who went on to be an Ekso cofounder and its chief executive officer, hired Angold right out of college to work on semiconductors, Angold said.
“We had this common connection in tractor pulling,” Angold said with a chuckle. “That brought us together and gave us a common theme.”
But in 2002, a drop in the market led Angold to working at Rain Bird Corporation, a sprinkler developer.
“I wanted to get involved in high-volume parts,” Angold said.
Shortly thereafter, Harding called on Angold about working on exoskeletons at the University of California, Berkley, for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, simply referred to as DARPA.
Angold’s brother, Ryan, was a Navy SEAL at the time.
“We always talked about how someday I would figure out a way to make him cool stuff,” Angold said. “That dream was coming to life.”
However, two weeks after Angold moved to Berkley in 2004, that dream became a nightmare when Ryan Angold broke his neck, becoming an incomplete quadriplegic.
“That exposed me to what spiral cord injury is and paralysis,” Russ Angold said.
His brother’s paralysis primarily affected his arms, but he eventually regained their use, Angold said.
“But that got me thinking, ‘How do you gradually recover if you can’t walk?’ That is where that seed was planted,” Angold said.
In 2005, Harding, Angold and Homayoon Kazerooni founded what became Ekso.
“My joke around here is that my goal was to work with farmers, and somewhere along the way I got tied up in robots,” Angold said.
The company licensed military applications to the Lockheed Martin Corporation in 2009, then focused on the medical side, which came out in 2010, Angold said.
The company is headquartered in Richmond in a historic Ford factory where the come of the company’s earliest cars were built, Angold said,
“It was kind of fitting. They built an automotive industry out of this building, and we hope to build a bionic industry,” Angold said. “Things have come along great. Now we have devices throughout the U.S. and Europe.”
Angold is not Ekso’s only Nevada County connection. The company’s clinical director, Darrell Musick, is a Nevada Union High School graduate.
The company’s chief financial officer, Max Scheder-Bieschin, is the brother-in-law of the Grass Valley woman who brought Honaker to the company’s attention, according to Honaker.
“We’re all Grass Valley folk,” Angold joked of his more than 75 employees.
On Jan. 11, 2012, Honaker fell 15 feet while practicing an aerial dance at The Center for the Arts in Grass Valley — a shattering crash that severed her spine and left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Exactly one year later, Honaker was at Ekso’s facilities, strapped into an exoskeleton, taking her first steps since that last time she danced.
“I got to see her walk, and she was really excited about it,” Angold said. “When a doctor tells you can’t walk again, a lot of people don’t accept that. So it meant a lot to her to bring her up here and walk again.”
The company that started at a school working with the military and has blossomed into physical therapy is just getting those bionic legs up and running.
“The most exciting thing at the end of the day is even though we have been working on technology for eight years now, we are just working through the barriers,” Angold said. “It’s really exciting to think where we take this technology.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.