By Nate Macabuag
Currently, a whopping 50 per cent of people who are given prosthetics decide to stop using them after just a year. Why? Because they’re heavy, painful to wear, overly complicated and bafflingly expensive to get and maintain – around £20,000 per patient, per year. Even worse, in middle- and low-income countries limb loss is 100 times more common. But with limited access to trained clinicians and finances, 90 per cent of these people have no access to prostheses in the first place.
These problems can all be solved by simply listening to what users of prostheses want: comfortable, easy-to-use prosthetic limbs that they can fit themselves. Products that, by virtue of their demanded simplicity, are over 100 times cheaper than existing alternatives.
The idea began as a university project. We started out wanting to build Iron Man – we thought robotic prosthetics was an awesome first step. We were soon introduced to a quadruple amputee and this is when our motivations changed. Talking to him was humbling as he explained that with all the high-tech development going into bionic hands, the reality is that none of the outcomes were affordable or accessible to the public. An overwhelming majority of people are still given heavy, ugly prosthetics with hooks on the end – a design that hasn’t changed since World War II. It seemed ridiculous that in 2018 that is the standard we accept, and since then it’s been our mission to fix this.
My university project teammates left to pursue other interests, so I entered competitions to secure seed funding for the company. Ben and I then met through a mutual friend working on leg prosthetics. Ben is finishing his thesis on a controller for advanced bionic hands. Through his work on the high-end prosthetics, Ben came to realise the need for affordable, simple prosthetics. We shared the same vision and co-founded the company.
We have many, many people advising us. David Griffiths, former BP Development Engineer, got involved through the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace (ICAH) community. He’s been a cornerstone in helping us identify and protect our IP. Davide Turi, Enterprise Lab Expert in Residence, is amazing at keeping us on track and focusing on the end user. David Bickers, CEO of the Douglas Bader Foundation, a huge UK limb loss charity, has also been pivotal. His excitement about the product and contacts in the limb loss community are invaluable. We cold emailed him, he responded and met us the same day. Gordon Robson and David Harland, who have managed, grown and sold many companies in their time, are part of the Imperial Venture Mentoring Service (IVMS) from the Enterprise Lab, and continue to help us transition from startup to scale-up.
The Enterprise Lab is the reason we even have a team. I never would have pursued this as a venture without guidance from the VCC program. We’ve done coaching, attended the seminars, participated and came second in VCC, and go down to the Lab to hang out regularly. I love them.
Now we’re in the final stages of prototyping. We’re running month-long product pilots to hone the final elements of the design. Our patent has just been filed and we’re in talks with a manufacturer to begin the next stage: distribution. We’ll be looking for funding in autumn to get us through manufacture.
Our biggest successes to date have been securing pre-seed funding from four competitions and a grant in March, and getting early customers to sign up and try out the product.
Our biggest challenge so far has been losing an original co-founder on the cusp of us pitching for funding, so I led Mitt alone for a couple of months before meeting Ben.
There are also manufacturing challenges in transitioning from prototyping to batch production. It is small scale – we’re talking 10 units – but this has delayed the start of our trial.
My advice to any students thinking of starting a business is to take the plunge. There is literally nothing to lose, no mortgage, no children, no ongoing commitments. If the worst comes to the worst, the company doesn’t work, you go live at home for a month or two. There’s no downside to trying.
Also, start small. Have a grand world-changing vision and then think what’s the smallest, easiest way for me to start doing it? Can I provide the service for one person? Great, I’ll do that first. Then two, then three, then get a website. Take little steps. And finally, some practical advice: use the Enterprise Lab to get a mentor and absorb advice from as many sources as possible.
We are always seeking advice from anyone who’s worked in manufacturing, worked in the medical device industry, or worked to get products into emerging markets including Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam or Columbia.
In September/October we’ll be looking to start raising £400,000 to fund safety testing, manufacture, distribution, and bring on a production engineer and a clinical lead.