Max Scheder-Bieschin profile picture

Max Scheder-Bieschin

Chief Financial Officer, Ekso Bionics (Ekso)

Ekso is a worldwide pioneer in the field of robotic exoskeletons. This means we wrap robots around humans to enhance human strength, endurance and mobility, whether able-bodied or a person with physical disabilities. We are particularly well known for our Ekso GT, which allows those who have suffered a stroke or spinal cord injury to rehabilitate earlier and more effectively than they could under today’s standard of care.

What’s the background to the business? A friend of the founders first introduced me to Ekso in 2010. I had just sold my previous business, Barefoot Motors, but I wasn’t ready to retire. I worked initially as a consultant, but was so inspired by the technology that I transitioned to full time CFO in 2011. As soon as I saw a spinal chord injured person stand up with the help of the Ekso skeleton, I turned to the founders and said: “I’m in”.

We developed a business plan and I helped to arrange the first round of funding. The 3 founders are all technologists – Professor Kazarooni and 2 of his students, Russ Angold and Nate Harding. At the time, they were all members of the Berkeley Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California.

The technology was developed initially to assist soldiers with carrying heavy loads, not for treating stroke or spinal cord injured patients. During their research, they had a revolutionary breakthrough, which allowed them to carry a weight of 200lbs using 4 watts of power, instead of the traditional 5,000 watts. In addition, Russ’s brother was a Navy SEAL and had suffered a spinal chord injury (thankfully since recovered), and they noticed similarities between their technology and how they could assist people with a spinal injury.

Right now, we sell to hospitals with the goal of rehabilitating people who have sustained some sort of lower limb paralysis. The product is not yet available for home use.

BUSINESS BRIEFING

Business goal for the next 12 months: We have had 3 very exciting developments in the past year.

First, we made the transition from a founder-led business to hiring an experienced CEO, Tom Looby.

Second, we received FDA approval to treat individuals with Hemiplegia due to stroke (92% of gait therapy is stroke related), individuals with spinal cord injuries at levels T4 to L5, and individuals with spinal cord injuries at levels of T3 to C7. This is a major breakthrough for the company and we look forward to building our clinical evidence further by collaborating with a rehabilitation center on a clinical trial called WISE that is designed to prove the functional benefits of exoskeletons for spinal cord injury patients.

Third, we did a financing and up-listed to NASDAQ (EKSO).

Going forward, we want to take our product from ‘enthusiastic buy-in among key opinion leaders’ to a recognized standard of care in the larger market. We also want our next generation product to be focused on the home market. In addition, we have received inquiries about helping construction workers carry heavy loads. These are exciting times!

Advice you wish you had received when you started your business: I don’t have very many regrets. People like to believe they could have done something sooner, better, faster … but that’s always going to be the case.

At Ekso we talk a lot about experience being like steps we take, like taking steps with our product –we want to explore and learn new things. Everybody who is learning to walk will fall and that’s OK; it’s a learning experience. We have to get up and take the next step. At Ekso Bionics, we don’t want to make too many mistakes, but we also realize that we are going to make them.

Best business decision: My best decision was to take a year off. After 20 years in investment banking, it helped me to take a step back and reassess what was important to me. It was a risk – I didn’t know if my family wanted me 24/7 (!) – but I felt I had missed out on some early exciting times with our kids, so it gave me real time to reconnect.

Toughest business decision: It was probably here at Ekso. In 2013 we were running out of money but we strongly believed in what we were doing. We had to figure out how to extend our runway and the question became how to go about restructuring. We had great people we didn’t want to lose so we had to furlough up to 40% of our workforce. Everyone who stayed had to take a 30% “haircut”. Every employee accepted the terms and when we raised our next round of funding, many of the furloughed employees came back full time.

Person most admired:  There are so many people you can learn from – it’s not just about what one person did. I admire people making an impact on future generations; thinking beyond themselves and selflessly for the greater good.

Like most about job:  I love the impact we have on people and how we can change their lives for the better.

Like least about job: There is not one thing in particular I dislike, but sometimes I don’t feel we’re doing as good a job as we could be when explaining some of the decisions we’re making as a public company. This can lead to some frustration with investors. For the most part, having investors has encouraged the company to be more transparent, to have a sense of urgency, and to seek out best practices. We believe we are making the best decisions for the long-term health of company, but some people have short time views and will create difficulties for us.

Dream job: I love what I do but if I weren’t doing this, I’d probably be skiing in Montana.

BEHIND THE SUIT

Birthplace: I was born in New York. I moved to California when I studied at Stanford and although I live here now, I love to travel whenever possible.

Education: BA – Economics, Stanford University. I also attended New York University and Stanford University’s Executive Program.

I was in banking for most of my career but was traveling a lot and missed out on many family opportunities. I left the banking industry and promised myself that in my next career I would choose to do business with really smart people, who have an impact on future generations. First I built and sold Barefoot Motors, which designed and manufactured electric all-terrain vehicles, and then I met Ekso, which has really helped to put that vision into practice. When I left banking, my gift to my wife on her milestone birthday was to take a year off and travel the world with our kids. We have always been passionate about the environment so we wanted to experience the great wonders of the world as a family. We spent 2 months in New Zealand and 6 months in Australia, where we got to see first-hand the impact of global warming on a glacier. My son, who was 12 at the time, asked me why my generation was ruining the world for his generation. It was a wake up call for me to do something meaningful and impactful.

Favorite book: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. It is a story about obsession, revenge, adversity and the ocean.

Favorite movie: Remember the Titans, starring Denzel Washington. It’s the true story of an African-American coach and his high school team on their first season as a racially integrated unit, and really emphasizes the importance of diversity.

Outside of work: I’m passionate about the outdoors. I particularly enjoy skiing, sailing, and triathlons. I have done many triathlons with Team In Training, which raises money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. When I was training for an Ironman, a long race that features a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, my 12-year old daughter decided that she wanted to train with me. She roped in 3 of her friends and we all trained together. She loved it and actually went on to compete internationally. She was ranked 3rd in the U.S. and placed 12th in the 2011 World Triathlon Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

Community: We encourage awareness of health. We are very active with the Mark Pollock Trust, whose mission it is to find a cure for paralysis. Mark suffered a spinal chord injury that left him paralyzed, and he is also blind. He has not let his disabilities limit him and has competed in ultra endurance races across deserts, mountains, and the polar ice caps. We sponsor all employees to participate in the Run In the Dark, a multi-location night run, and have fielded teams at the Ragnar Relay Series – a long distance running relay race.

Family: I am married to my best friend, Ann, and have 3 kids – a 25-year old adult son, and 2 adult daughters, ages 23 and 21.