Colleen Turner introduced Monty Konrad Reed, a member of Philadelphia Church and the Shoreline Rotary Club. He is also founder of They Shall Walk, a registered non-governmental organization. Mr. Reed has studied biosynthetics at the University of Washington, has been recognized as a Mary Gates Scholar, and has twice received NASA Space Grant Scholar awards. He is a member of the Sigma Theta Phi and Phi Theta Kappa honor societies, and is also a member of the Bequest Society. His topic was The Gift of Walking Project.
Reed began his highly engaging talk with an anecdote about starting a rudimentary business as a child selling items that could be creatively dispensed by a Pez device. Making a profit, he learned the difference between earning a salary and running a business at an early age.
“Some clubs don’t even have a New Generations committee,” commenting on the earlier report given to the club. “I was involved in Scouts as a young boy, and my first contact with Rotary was in a service project. I asked who the adults were and wound up getting an honorary Rotarian patch. When I was invited as an adult to join Rotary, I had been waiting since I was 12. There are a lot of young people who are just waiting to be included. People have had great experiences with Rotary.”
Reed testified that he had grown up in a churched home and “got to know Jesus as a young kid.” Explaining his life of setbacks and victories, he said, “I had lots of challenges, including a learning disability. At one point in my life I had lost everything, but I learned the truth of that poem ‘Footprints.’ The Lord has always carried me.”
President John Martinka & Mont Reed
“I always expected to be a mad scientist,” he continued, “but my teachers pointed out that my test scores would not get me into college. I had planned out my whole life, but one person changed it [by telling me I couldn’t succeed].” According to his teachers, he said, “I would either work in a factory or other labor. But, I wanted to do something important.” When someone in Europe died in a car bomb, “I went to the military recruiter to sign up to fight terrorists. I wound up enlisting as an Army Ranger, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes just to get to work.”
“I used to be afraid of heights until my first jump,” he explained further. “[I was] trembling in my boots scared to death. They promised that if the light turned green and I didn’t jump they were going to push me out. It worked.” There is a problem with challenging authority, he noted. “Is anyone here in law enforcement? When you break the law there are consequences. Gravity is always going to work. Parachutes? Not so much. Mine didn’t work.” Reed hit the ground hard and broke his ankle. In the hospital, he asked God: “What am I going to do to make my life meaningful?” While in convalescence he read about powered armor in a novel that would let soldiers move specially, doing things like jumping over buildings. He began to dream of creating such a powered suit that would allow paralyzed people to walk. “I talked to engineers who explained [specific reasons] why it couldn’t be done. I kept saying, ‘But, if you could solve that, could we do it?’”
While in the hospital, he began to design a life suit. “I received the gift of the miracle of walking.” Through therapy, he got back his ability to walk. “When I got out of the hospital, I had to lie on the floor. I couldn’t sit or stand for more than 15 minutes. No one would hire me for a job.”
After a while, however, an opportunity emerged. “A friend of mine had a father who owned a convenience store,” he said. The man needed help with bookkeeping, and he said, “You can lie on the floor and count the money. For two hours he trained me to do the books, and then he went to play golf. Imagine the trust of a guy who gives his money to a guy with a learning disability to do his books. I messed them up, but [eventually] learned to do it.”
“So I started a mail order business, and a year later no longer needed to work at the 7-11 store. Some people on the East Coast asked me to come teach them what I was doing. More invitations came. I kept doubling the price and people kept calling me.” He succeeded so much he was able to buy a horse ranch and “played hard” after early retirement in 1998. “In 2000, my wife and I realized that I had been given the gift of walking, so we started They Shall Walk. “I put a request for help on the website of the Seattle Robotics Society,” he said, and someone from the society taught him to do programming.
Since then, he has made remarkable progress on his dream. “We’ve built 15 iterations of the robotic suit prototype. It’s a life suit robotic exoskeleton.” A very entertaining speaker, Reed told an amusing anecdote about winning a weightlifting contest “because no one else had a robotic suit.” Apparently, no one thought about banning such a suit in the contest rules, since no one could conceive of someone might show up with one.
“I’ve been honored twice as a NASA space grant scholar. I’m also a Mary Gates scholar — less than 3,000 people have been chosen for that [award],” he beamed. He also talked about meeting music star Joan Jett (“I love Rock and Roll”). “I got to meet her and she’s agreed to help with a They Shall Walk event.”
“When I got out of the hospital and couldn’t work, I wanted to take an art class, and they made me take tests. Three hours later they told me I had a learning disability and that I needed to do four things differently than other people. Once I had those marching orders, I knew what I needed to do,” he said. Waxing philosophical, he continued to say, “Freedom is best when the boundaries are clearly defined.” Despite the predictions of teachers who said that he would never be able to go to college, “I got a 2-year degree from a community college and then went to the UW. I’m almost finished with a B.A. degree.”
President John Martinka thanks Monty Reed for his program.
The future version of the life suit will be living muscle tissue, because it is the best motor,” he said. To illustrate, he showed a brief video about how electricity can make lab-grown muscle tissue move. “Biosynthetic tissue has nerves in it,” he explained. “You hit it with electricity and it activates. In the future we expect to be able to grow the muscle fibers in a dish and combine them with other technology. Clamshell panels secure the suit around the paralyzed person. They push a button and the suit stands up, carrying them with it.” A joystick lets them control where they walk.
The future life suit will include a brain-computer interface. “It’s like science fiction come true,” he said. “It can literally read your mind. Paralyzed people will be able to just think, and the suit will move to where they are and put itself on them.” He further explained.
The Rotary Club of Vellore, India, and the Shoreline Rotary Club are doing a joint project to get robotic suits into a hospital in India. “So many paralyzed people coming through the door that the India government has given us immediate approval for the suit instead of putting us through a long approval process [like the FDA would require in America].” Speaking of his Indian partner, he said, “Dr. Jacob John is a hero in the Indian medical community. I didn’t know he was so famous when I started working with him. The project is about Rotarians at work together.”
There is no working model of the suit yet, but it is expected in February.
After the presentation, the venerable Frank Young — no longer dressed in his summer shorts — spoke up: “As the appointed judge for this club today, I’d like to award Monty as the best speaker of this year.” The club roundly applauded its assent to Young’s sentiment.