An innovative licence to print limbs

Sep 19th 2017 

When a prosthetics firm opts for the tagline ‘Prosthetics shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg’, they’re clearly doing things differently.

Just how differently can’t be overstated, for Bristol-based Open Bionics produce 3D printed limbs costing around £5,000 – that’s compared to up to £80,000 for an alternative bionic device.

What’s more, in keeping with the firm’s disruptive culture, their tech is open source, with 3D models and software shared online. An NHS trial is currently underway, meaning Open Bionics limbs will soon be available to national health patients.

A hard sell

Chatting in the light-flooded central hub of the Future Space complex at the University of the West of England, co-founder Samantha Payne admits it’s been a whirlwind three years since she and her colleague, Joel Gibbard, decided to do prosthetics differently.

Samantha says, “For any hardware startup it’s a daunting task because hardware is difficult, expensive and constantly needs funding. In addition, a medical startup faces lots of regulations, so it’s a difficult pathway to commercialisation. Prostheses are also a niche product without a giant consumer audience. That’s a hard sell for VC investors.”

Unchanged for 200 years

Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for Open Bionics’ innovative approach to attract attention, and as word spread they gained the support and funding they needed to get things off the ground.

“One of the reasons the prosthetics industry hasn’t changed much over the years is that there are so many patents,” says Samantha. “People are hiding their tech, so everyone has to start from square one. If we levelled the playing field so everyone has access to the same technology, then we can improve the technology even faster. Because we are open source, all over the world there are projects developing processes or features that we can integrate into our product. There is no way we could have afforded to run these R&D projects and hire the relevant researchers and engineers.”

Samantha takes Insights on a tour of the cutting-edge complex where Open Bionics makes its home alongside the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. Consequential Robotics are hard at work on Miro, a cute interactive companion robot. Elsewhere engineers are working on a robot that can help users get dressed, as well as nanorobots small enough to be injected into the bloodstream, where they can attack cancer cells.

Multi-grip bionic hand for kids

Meanwhile it’s another busy day in the Open Bionics office, where the team of 13 are ignoring – for now – the bespoke table football unit, complete with 3D-printed heads of each staff member. A display case contains various Open Bionics limbs from over the years, including their famous Disney-branded arms for kids.

Samantha says, “We’ve created multi-grip bionic hands for children as young as eight. That’s never been done before. You can get hands that have one degree of freedom – they open and close – for a child that young. One of the things that the NHS trial is looking at is the psycho-social response to having a limb that doesn’t look human. How does it make a child feel? Does it empower them? Help them understand their difference? I don’t know what the result of the trial will be, but the children tested independently, who got the Star Wars and Iron Man hands, were so happy and thrilled. That was really good to see.”

Empowering women too

Besides improving the lives of children and adults without limbs, Samantha is keen to promote the visibility of women in tech. She believes her vocal presence on social media helped achieve a 50:50 male/female ratio on the Open Bionics engineering team.

“It’s something I’m really proud of, but not something I particularly pushed for,” says Samantha. “We didn’t go into interviews thinking ‘We’ve got to have 50:50’. There is a lot of work to be done promoting women in technology. I think it’s not just encouraging women into tech, but men showing they aren’t biased or sexist and that they value a different opinion and perspective. My profile has helped. I know one company whose recruitment drive didn’t attract a single female engineering application. Yet on their website and social media, every bit of information includes only guys in the photos. So, it doesn’t look like an environment where women can thrive.”

Meanwhile, under the direction of Samantha and Joel, Open Bionics goes from strength to strength. There’s even some hot-off-the-press news to share before she disappears back to another busy day at the cutting edge of prosthetics:

“We’ve started researching lower limb prosthetics. They’re very challenging because they are load bearing. We are also looking to scale and launch in the US and are in the process of gaining FDA approval. That’s really exciting.”

Put your (bionic) hands together for Samantha and the team. We wish them well for the next stage of the Open Bionics journey.


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