During an episode of the popular series Glee, broadcast in Israel
last week, Artie gets himself out of his wheelchair for the first time. This "miracle" may be just a television scene, but it's the result of a real Israeli development from Argo Medical Technologies Ltd. in Yokneam Ilit. The firm's founder, Dr. Amit Goffer, himself a quadriplegic, has developed a device which enables those suffering from paralysis of the lower body to stand and even to walk.
After the series' episode was broadcast in the US, an extensive item on the device appeared in Newsweek. That morning, internet searches for the company's name came up with some 4,000 hits. By the evening, this number had risen to 90,000. The hits included responses from surfers, blog and news-site ads, and thousands of postings from wheelchair users around the world.
The coverage Argo received was the result of no other than Santa Claus, according to the TV series. In the Christmas episode, Artie's friend Britney asks Santa Claus to help Artie walk, and he finds the ReWalk device under the Christmas tree. "It's an Israeli invention," Artie explains to his friends and viewers.
"In November we presented the device at a medical device exhibition in Seattle," says Oren Tamari, deputy director of operations at Argo. "Suddenly my cell-phone rings, and it's the producers asking if they can have the device for the series. I had no idea what "Glee" was. Luckily, the American distributor was with me and understood immediately what this meant, and jumped at the opportunity. Within two days the distributor was on his way to Hollywood with the device, to the Paramount studios where the series is filmed, to instruct the actor who plays Artie.
"The producers said that for a long time they had wanted to film an episode where Artie walks. They had seen the device on one of the American news channels, where the device got extensive coverage, including on CNN, and they decided to contact us. They promised there'd be further episodes in which the device would appear."
Goffer (57), the developer, is a doctor in physics and computer sciences and a wheelchair user since his quad overturned 13 years ago, leaving him quadriplegic. The development of the device began in 2000 in the garage of his house in Tivon. He called the company Argo after the ship from the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece.
Goffer also founded the company which developed an MRI device and was sold to the US company Medtronic for $30 million.
Argo's ReWalk appears on Glee
"When I was injured, I couldn't understand why a wheelchair was the only solution available to the disabled," he says. "I decided to develop a solution myself. I wanted walking to be natural, so that the user wouldn't have to think or walk like a robot – 'take a step, don’t take a step' – but would be able to walk automatically without having to think much about it.
"So the basic idea was that the movement of the shoulders and inclining the body forward would automatically operate the walking device. Because the system includes crutches, the body is inclined forward. At the same time, sensors attached to the upper body give instructions to the motors… which make the leg take a step. For this reason, the device is suitable only for those whose lower body is paralyzed. It's the first device which has enabled them to walk."
You've given hope to many disabled people, but you, paralyzed in all four limbs, are unable to enjoy the device you created.
"At this stage you need healthy arms to operate the crutches. In the future we'll come up with something for disabled people like me. My vision is that, just as there are wheelchairs for all paralyzed people, there'll be a ReWalk device for them too."
Did you believe the TV series would offer such promotion?
"I wasn’t aware of the effect of the series, which I hadn't known at all. Since then, the number of people contacting us has risen dramatically. The Fox network, for example, is supposed to come to Yokneam to do a feature on us. This is despite the fact that CNN did something on us in 2008 and just six months ago we appeared on Good Morning America."
Have famous disabled people contacted you?
"A racing driver from Andorra who was left paralyzed contacted us. They pressured us to give him a device, but we don't just give out devices – the user needs training at a rehabilitation center, and when he contacted us we didn’t yet have devices at such centers. The actor Paul Reiser from the sitcom Mad About You came to visit us in Yokneam to ask about the device for a family member."
Did you get state assistance?
"I want to thank the state, though it's not the done thing these days. At the beginning we received a grant from the chief scientist's Tnufa Fund. The fact that the state was willing to share the risk gave the company a big push."
Argo Medical Technologies Ltd. is owned by Goffer, who holds minority shares, and venture capital funds SCP Vitalife, ProSeed and the Marc Rich Foundation, as well as private investors including one from Spain. A few million dollars have been invested so far, and the firm is in the midst of a major recruitment drive in Israel and abroad in an attempt to raise between $6 million and $8 million.
The device costs $100,000 in the US and 100,000 euro in Europe. Isn't that a bit expensive for a private individual?
"The model you're talking about is intended for rehabilitation centers. We're developing a model for private use which will cost half that. I believe the costs will be covered by medical insurance abroad, because it will save many other costs in the health maintenance system. Sitting in a wheelchair causes illnesses, including urinary tract inflammation which is the number one cause of hospitalization for wheelchair users, and also pressure sores. The body needs to move, and we're enabling that."
Have you obtained all the permits required for marketing the device?
"We have the European permit. In the US we've got FDA approval which enables us to sell to rehabilitation centers. We're expecting to get approval to sell to individuals next year."
Will you sell in Israel too?
"There are some 15,000 people in Israel paralyzed in the lower body who could use this device, compared with tens of thousands abroad, so our main market is there. But we will certainly sell the device to IDF disabled veterans."