“MY DREAM is to help people with disabilities walk comfortably and independently in their everyday lives.” The future of people with mobility disorders in the lower half of the body is expected to be brighter thanks to our alumnus, Jung Yoon-jung. She graduated the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Yonsei University in 2009, then went on to UC Berkeley to get her PhD degree. She and her colleagues together established a start-up business there called “SuitX”. Last February, they won the first prize at the International Competition of the UAE AI & Robotics Award for Good with their invention, the Phoenix. The Phoenix is the world’s lightest and most advanced exoskeleton which enables individuals to stand up and walk about. The Yonsei Annals discloses Jung’s ambition to lend a hand to people with walking disabilities, and also her story as an undergraduate student.
Annals: Congratulations on your winning at the competition! Could you briefly introduce the Phoenix? How is it different from other walking-support robots?
Jung: Thank you very much. The Phoenix is the world’s lightest and most advanced exoskeleton designed to help people with mobility disorders. It allows the user to put on and remove each piece independently, and mainly supports those who have an injured spinal cord. What distinguishes the Phoenix from other robots are its light weight, comparatively long battery life, affordable price and adjustability. It weighs only 12.25 kg, and speeds up to 0.5 meters per second, though maximum speed would depend on the individual user. However, one limitation of Phoenix is that it only suits adults. It cannot support toddlers, but we are hoping to provide extensive instruments for them as well.
Annals: Even before studying at Yonsei, did you always dream of becoming the person you are now? Were there any specific reasons for making this type of robot?
Jung: I’ve always wanted to be a helpful person, but I didn’t have specific plans. But I liked making tangible things, which led me to study and pursue a career in engineering. At the same time, although I’ve always wanted to create something useful, I never wanted to do anything that involved animal testing. I actually did not have a specific reason for making this type of robot. But once I got into this, I got to see a lot of people who needed this technology. By working with people in need of physical support, I learned so many things - not only technical issues that I would need to solve, but how those people were living and struggling to live. It made me think that I should make something to help them, and contribute in changing their lives. And of course, I get emotional too, sometimes, when I see people who used to be healthy but got injured from an accident that led to permanent loss of their ability to walk.
Annals: What are the merits of starting a business in the United States as an engineer, as compared to starting a business in Korea?
Jung: In the United States, especially where I am, starting up a business is really common. There are a lot of start-up companies; although not all of them survive, it is highly encouraged for college students to go for it. It still makes a good experience. I think basically the atmosphere is quite different from in Korea. Although the government and schools are trying to encourage start-ups in Korea, it is not really happening yet as in the United States. The procedure required in starting a business is the exact opposite in Korea, as well. For my case, we engineers first start up a company, then hire the salesman ourselves to sell our products. But in Korea, the company is in the employer’s position and hires the engineers, which greatly discourages many to start their own business.
Annals: What are you currently working on?
Jung: Currently, we’re working on some regulatory issues associated with the Phoenix. A lot of procedures are required to acquire the FDA certificate, as well as CE Marking for commercialization in Europe. Being registered as a legal medical device company in the United States is quite picky as there are a lot of requirements to meet, mainly to assure the safety of the product for customers. As an engineer, I still think it unfortunate because although the technology is ready, it cannot be readily supplied to the public.
Annals: What is your ultimate goal in pursuing your career?
Jung: I want more and more people to be able to walk with the Phoenix. Right now, my goal is to provide them with practical devices to help them get around comfortably on their own. As many people know, travelling with a wheel chair is hard. It is even harder to find a restaurant that is approachable for wheel chair users. Providing walking-support devices would also prevent secondary injury from prolonged seating. For some patients, simply standing up and walking a little bit could improve their general health condition - by Phoenix, how easy would that be?
Annals: Could you tell us about your life at Yonsei University?
Jung: I remember that it was really fun. I was one of the seven girls out of about 200 classmates. For that part, I didn’t really like it but I met a lot of good friends during my undergraduate course. In freshman year when I didn’t have a specific major at the College of Engineering, I could get along with many other students with different majors. In sophomore year when I finally entered my major, I took all the classes together with my closest friend. We pulled all-nighters almost every other day, which remains as one of the most precious memories at Yonsei. I also played violin at Euphonia, the Yonsei University Orchestra group.
Annals: Lastly, please give us some advice! What were some of the things that motivated you and what should we do as university students?
Jung: Though I now recall my college life as fun, at that time I was actually very stressed out at times. However, one thing to remember is that it is important to make a good team with your friends. I remember studying together with my best friend and eating at Hanul-saem. We used to bet on who would get the higher grade, and the one with the lower had to buy food from Hanul-saem, which was an excellent motivator. I would like to advise Yonsei students to have as much diverse experiences as possible because you won’t get to have any more opportunities to do so once you get a job. Also, don’t be afraid of taking interesting classes outside of your major. In addition, although you should not live in a textbook memorizing everything, you should gain a sense of knowing at a glance which technique is needed in certain circumstances. Good luck!