Chloë Angus: The Canadian Entrepreneur Merging Fashion and Robotics - Nicola Wealth

Chloë Angus: The Canadian Entrepreneur Merging Fashion and Robotics


 “What I just love is that we are a Canadian project built on pennies and passion, and we have the world’s most advanced exoskeleton.”

Chloë Angus’ entrepreneurial journey as a designer of both fashion and advanced robotics technology has been anything but conventional and has resulted in the building of two separate companies, Chloë Angus Design and Human In Motion Robotics, a Vancouver firm that has developed the world’s most advanced human exoskeleton.

In 2015, as the proprietor of her clothing design studio, Angus was a successful Canadian fashion designer renowned for her line of clothing imprinted with the works of some of Canada’s most prominent Indigenous artists. Recognized as a champion of Canadian heritage, Chloë’s unique pieces featured the art of Corrine Hunt, Gerry Sheena, KC Hall, Debra Sparrow, Jay Bell Redbird, Clarence Mills, and Wade Baker, all names familiar in the Canadian art world. Chloë’s “Spirit Wrap,” a beautiful pashmina-like wrap featuring stunning Indigenous artwork and mother-of-pearl buttons, was in high demand across the country. Her studio was building a name, especially after being awarded the official fashion sponsor of the Leo Awards, British Columbia’s (Hollywood North’s) equivalent of the Academy Awards — runways and red carpets were becoming routine for Angus, and press appearances alongside local celebrities became the norm. The Chloë Angus “Spirit Wrap,” emblazoned with the work of Heiltsuk artist KC Hall, would soon become iconic, attracting international attention after being worn by former British Columbia Premier, Christy Clark, and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, during a globally televised royal visit to BC.

Chloё Angus with a friend wearing one of her designs at the Leo Awards

 

Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, adorned in Chloё Angus Spirit Collection.

 

Former British Columbia Premier Christy Clark wearing the Chloё Angus dress and Spirit wrap alongside Prince William and Kate Middleton

By all accounts, seven years ago, Chloë’s fashion line was on an accelerating growth trajectory — her pieces were created to inspire the wearer to feel “seen, heard and remembered,” and her customer base responded favourably, increasing in number and loyally purchasing her designs at The Bay, boutiques across the country, galleries and museums nationwide, as well as online. Vendor diversification and a devoted customer base contributed to growing momentum, and expansion opportunities opened up, including the homewares market within Canada and internationally. Angus’ entrepreneurial future seemed limitless. Her dream of a multi-story, multi-purpose design house — inspired by a 1990s trip to Ralph Lauren’s New York flagship — replete with homewares and fashion seemed well within reach.

Chloë Angus Spirit Wrap 

 

However, in 2015 everything changed in a matter of hours. A typical daily run was cut short by what Angus presumed was sciatica but later learned was a spinal tumour that would cause paralysis from her waist down. Young, healthy and active, Chloë limped home from the life-altering run with pain in her right hip to find the toes on her right side had gone numb. Thinking she had a pinched nerve, she drove herself to the hospital, expecting to be in and out within four hours — the average time it takes to get through Emergency in Vancouver — and back to work by Monday morning.

Instead, after hours of investigation and progressively numbing legs, Chloë was met at her bedside by, as she remembers, a perfectly coiffed spinal surgeon who told her, rather nonchalantly and without emotion, that she would never walk again due to a tumour in her spine that had bled causing a few drops of blood to cut off her spinal nerves permanently. Angus heard his words but could not reconcile the ramifications of his casually delivered life sentence. There had not been a traumatic accident or fall, and first responders hadn’t rushed her to the hospital. Twenty-four hours earlier, she had been walking normally and had set out for a routine run — the movie star-looking, emotionless doctor seemed vastly out-of-place, and his words felt wrong to Angus.

Chloë had always been a visionary, a woman who easily recognized and seized opportunity — “Can’t” and “won’t” weren’t words that had ever influenced her choices. Growing up off-the-grid in a remote coastal British Columbia fishing village, she was not shaped by limitations or restrictions. Her iconoclastic parents had escaped city-living, settling into Egmont, BC, a relatively unpopulated area on the Sunshine Coast preserved by the local Indigenous community. As the second eldest of five children, Angus grew up working on her parents’ organic seafood farm and was homeschooled until grade ten, when she moved to boarding school for two years, eventually completing grade twelve in three months by correspondence after feeling stifled by the strictures of the conventional school system. Her parents’ renouncement of fast-paced city living and technology and their embracing of independent entrepreneurship imbued Angus with a tendency to lead and not follow, question rather than comply, and generate solutions to problems — her world was one of limitless possibility.

 

Egmont, BC

When the doctor told her she wouldn’t walk again, she doubted his words and resolved to find a way out of her abrupt life sentence.

Chloë’s husband, Gabe and large family were devastated by the doctor’s news. Still, Chloë showed remarkable stoicism and was steadfast in her hope that she could escape her predicament — she began to research solutions.

I got on Google,” Angus recalls, “and I ended up seeing an article in Popular Science Magazine online. It was about a new technology called an exoskeleton, a wearable robotics suit that would help paralyzed people walk again.

With a studio full of employees and partnerships with some of Canada’s most celebrated Indigenous artists, Chloë was anxious to get back to work. Acquiring or designing an exoskeleton that would allow her to work again became her primary focus throughout her three-month rehabilitation at GF Strong, BC’s only rehabilitation center for spinal cord injuries. She recognized the global acceleration of technological advancements and believed the development of a wearable robotics suit was within reach. Wheelchair technology had not advanced much in over 250 years, and she rationalized that with drones delivering groceries and man walking on the moon over fifty years earlier, a person with a spinal cord injury should be able to walk on Earth. She resolved to continue researching exoskeletons and advocating for those confined to live in a wheelchair. Her logic is elegant, and she easily articulates her common sense pursuit of a wearable robotics suit. 

 I looked around the world and wondered how you remove the stairs from thousands of years of architecture. How do you flatten mountains and valleys? That’s not possible, but what is possible is changing the vehicle that gets me there. Instead of trying to flatten everything out, we need this exoskeleton. We’ve seen the Boston Dynamics Robots – we know what they’re capable of now. This is truly the future of human motion.

Anyone previously spooked by artificial intelligence and robotics, particularly the “Do-You-Love-Me” dancing robots of Boston Dynamics, can find solace in the notion that this technology can be adapted for exoskeletons to assist those with physical disabilities. For Chloë, these technological advancements are a beacon of hope. If robots can dance and jump better than many non-disabled humans, the idea that the same technology can be adapted to help those with disabilities is not outside the realm of possibility.

Boston Dynamics Dancing Robots

Through extensive research and reading, Chloë learned that the benefits of the exoskeleton were monumental. Standing upright and walking independently would profoundly impact the physical health and mental health of anyone who uses a wheelchair. This technology would allow wearers to go from feeling limited to empowered and independent.

In 2015, Angus realized that she would likely go back to work in a wheelchair as an easily wearable exoskeleton was unavailable. However, staying seated would have consequences beyond the devastating limitation to mobility and lack of access to much of the world. Chloë quickly became aware of the psychological and social impact and the significant secondary health consequences of using a wheelchair. Human physiological processes have evolved and adapted to require standing and walking upright to function properly — the inability to stand and walk brings a host of deleterious physical consequences and precipitates rapid and continual decline in a variety of areas, including problems in the circulatory system, bowel and bladder, as well as bone density loss, and pressure sores. On top of the physical consequences, the social-emotional and psychological implications of living in a seated position below the eye level of family and peers are equally detrimental.

 Angus explains, “The whole concept of being out of eye level with your peers is devastating. Human communication happens through the eyes and at the same level. When you’re in a chair, you’re not at the level where communication is happening. You go into a meeting or social event to network and socialize, and how well will that go?” 

It’s easy to understand the urgency behind the race to develop a successful, marketable exoskeleton when Chloë describes the physical pain and the sense of loneliness and disconnection that stems from a life living seated amongst standing peers.

 How do you think your neck feels when you lookup for 10 minutes? You can’t hear the people up there, and they’re trying to talk to you down here, so it’s very disconnected — there’s a huge social piece. And it’s lonely because you don’t get the physical contact of hugging your loved one to your chest anymore. It’s more of a lap dance when people come at me, which is awkward. That ability to stand up and be at eye level changes everything.

While at GF Strong, Chloë learned that an exoskeleton had been gifted to the rehabilitation center by a benevolent American businessman, Mark Tompkins. She recalls asking her therapist about the donated exoskeleton, which she had read about in an online news article, only to discover that it was kept in a closet. After being donated, it had been tucked away for potential use during rehabilitation, but it took persistent requests for Chloe to gain access.

 I had them dig it out and advocated for myself to use it, and the first time I put on this cumbersome wearable robotics device, it took two people to help me into it, and I had to use a walker and arm crutches to keep myself balanced.

The moment Chloë wore the robotics suit, she knew she had found a potential solution, albeit one that was currently rudimentary and would require significant technological improvements.

 The day I stood up and walked across the gymnasium floor after doctors told me I’d never walk again, that was enough for me and changed everything. There was triumph – I was at eye level with my husband again. I could hug him. Marching across the gymnasium floor opened my eyes to what was possible with technology.

Immediately, Chloë began researching companies that designed exoskeletons, reaching out to them to offer collaboration. Unfortunately, only a handful of companies globally were involved in the exoskeleton market and finding one that would agree to collaborate would prove challenging.

However, she found two professors in the greater Vancouver area, Dr. Siamak Arzanpour and Dr. Ed Park, who, along with a group of engineering students, were working on a concept for an advanced exoskeleton out of Simon Fraser University’s Surrey location. Once she had completed her three months of rehabilitation at GF Strong, Chloë went out to meet with them.

 They had only a proof of concept – it was a very interesting idea for how this new type of joint could work and provide a better range of motion. I immediately went through it all, asked several questions, and gave them important criteria. I told them I wanted to be independent, I wanted it to be self-balancing, I wanted to use it in my personal life. Those were the things that were important to me.

When Dr. Arzanpour and Dr. Park claimed they believed they could accommodate her and build the exoskeleton she required, their partnership was born, and so was Human In Motion Robotics, a company now at the forefront of wearable robotics and a Canadian technological leader. Chloë was emphatic that they could reach their goals by working together in building a business partnership of complementary talents and abilities.

 I knew how to run a business, and I had some manufacturing background, at least I knew how to make pants without motors (laughing). All joking aside, I knew this would be extremely challenging, and we would need to build a diverse team, so we had all the skills to make this happen. The most important thing I had to offer was user experience and expertise, providing the team with much-needed input to design an exoskeleton that people need and want. I stuck to them like glue for five and a half years now. I can’t believe that I can now say that I now have an exoskeleton upstairs that I can operate independently. I can get into it myself, stand up and walk at multiple speeds, walk sideways, walk backwards, walk up and down stairs. The level of advancement that I’ve seen by the Human In Motion Robotics team has been incredible.

In almost six years, while simultaneously running her thriving clothing design company, Human In Motion Robotics has developed a world-class exoskeleton that has attracted international attention and investor interest. Their unique motion transfer system is patented, generating and moving power from outside to inside the body and naturally moving the human joints. “That has been our sweet sauce,” Chloë states. The wearable robotics suit they have developed can stand independently and enable a person who has no physical ability to stand upright. It will keep them balanced and allow them to walk independently.

 

Dr. Siamak Arzanpour, alongside a developing version of the Human In Motion exoskeleton

In October of 2021, Chloë and the Human In Motion team were invited to Dubai to unveil their wearable robotics suit on stage at GITEX, the world’s largest technology show. Dressed in the exoskeleton, Chloë opened the show to much fanfare — including greeting the King in front of a sea of the press — alongside Dr. Arzanpour and the rest of the Human In Motion Robotics team. Chloë mentions ironically that a stage in Dubai is not where she thought she would finally walk again.

 When I said I’m going to walk again, I never dreamed it would be in a wearable robotics suit, on a world stage in Dubai in front of hundreds of people with cellphones out. How It was awesome and nerve-wracking!

 

Chloë Angus wearing the Human In Motion Robotics (HMR) advanced exoskeleton alongside the HMR team

Although the impetus for developing Human In Motion’s exoskeleton was to assist those living with spinal cord injuries, the market for exoskeletons is much broader. It includes many other physical disabilities, such as neuro-degenerative disabilities, lower motor neuron disease (ALS), muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, loss of limbs, and, most expansively, the aging population. Demographic trends point to the rapid increase in our elderly population, bringing with it the mass decline of physical mobility. In a few short decades, the percentage of the population requiring wheelchairs and walkers will increase exponentially — the availability of a wearable robotics suit will provide access to vastly improved mobility along with better physical and mental health.

 Chloë’s eyes light up when she mentions the broad application for exoskeletons.

 This can be used in many different segments of the population, especially the elderly population, which is expanding every year. So that part about aging is important – we are all going to get old and need assistance; why not have the ability to walk around the seawall at any age or ability?

As Chloë embarks on a financing round to take the exoskeleton to market, she is ready to meet with venture capitalists across North America. The girl who grew up in a remote area of the Sechelt Inlet, without any technology aside from a small Singer sewing machine, is now at the forefront of one of the world’s most exciting technological advancements. Although her early interests revolved around celebrating and preserving the sanctity of the natural world through art and fashion, Chloë’s expanded focus challenges the notion that nature and technology must remain separate. Her mission to stand upright again and walk through the rural environment she grew up in seems like an inevitability in the future. Whether she will dance like the Boston Dynamics robots remains to be seen. Still, with each progressive technological advancement of Human In Motion Robotics, there is an increasing likelihood that she and her husband, Gabe, will dance together again one day.

Written by Tassan Sung, Nicola Wealth Women’s LEAD Initiative Chair