There are about two million hand amputees in the world: in the UK, approximately 600 people lose an upper limb every year. But many advanced bionic limbs available on the market aren’t just expensive and take long to manufacture, they’re also flat-out ugly. “Traditional prosthetic limbs are super clinical and not very enjoyable to look at or wear,” says Samantha Payne, COO and co-founder of Open Bionics, the bionic startup. Fortunately, the Bristol-based business aims to change that by slashing the bill – which can exceed £65,000 – to less than a tenth of the price by developing 3D-printed bionic hands ready to be shipped within two days of being ordered.
Ironically though, Payne actually never wanted to launch a business. “I didn’t set out to become an entrepreneur,” she says. Instead, Payne had happily embarked on a freelance career as a reporter after graduating from Chester University with a BA in journalism in 2013. It was in this capacity that she met Joel Gibbard, her future co-founder and the CEO of Open Bionics. “I interviewed him when he ran a crowdfunding campaign for a different robotic-hand project and he told me about his vision and the changes that he’d like to make to a very old industry,” Payne says.
Shortly after the profile was published, Gibbard asked if she’d be interested in helping him write a pitch for Intel’s Make it Wearable Challenge in 2014. Payne happily agreed. “We just wanted to get some funding so Joel could continue his project,” she says. “We didn’t think we’d end up starting a company.” However, when the duo ended up winning the £201,000 award, they didn’t rest on their laurels: they used the money to assemble a team of robotics experts and launch Open Bionics.
But this capital injection wasn’t the only perk that came with winning the challenge: the prize also included a place at University of California Berkeley’s business accelerator, an experience that would have a profound impact on Open Bionics future. “We spent three months learning about how to create a lean startup,” says Payne. The lean startup methodology enables founders to develop products by using their resources as efficiently as possible and to respond to feedback from end users. Open Bionics has incorporated this concept in two ways: by establishing a thriving community of amputees to bounce ideas off and by not raising any external capital until the startup really needed it.
That’s the reason that, even though the company was launched three years ago, it didn’t raise its seed round until March this year. Instead, the team has grown the business by raising £43,593 on Indiegogo, applying for grants and through winning different competitions. This approach has enabled Open Bionics to rack up an impressive list of accolades including the prestigious James Dyson Award for Innovative Engineering, the Limbless Association Prosthetic Innovation of the Year Award and two Tech4Good wins. Payne herself recently became the runner up for the prestigious Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award that celebrates female business acumen.
Open Bionics fattened its purse further with a £76,000 grant when the company joined the Disney Accelerator in 2015. “That was really cool because it’s so hard to get accepted,” says Payne. “The level of the businesses there is just exceptional.” Joining the accelerator also meant that the founders could pitch an idea to Disney that they’d had in their minds almost from the company’s inception. “Having spoken with amputees early on, they’d told us that they wanted bionic hands that were more interesting than human ones,” says Payne. “They wanted super-cool superhero hands.” Disney loved the idea and in 2016 Open Bionics unveiled a range of bionic arms for children inspired by Iron-Man, Frozen and Star Wars. Similarly, last year also saw Open Bionic team up with the video-game developer Eidos Montréal to design a bionic hand inspired by the video game Deus Ex.
The development of these limbs also highlights how much Open Bionics relies on feedback from end users. “We wouldn’t be making superhero limbs if the community hadn’t asked for them,” she says. From day one, the startup has developed a clear understanding of what amputees want from their hands by organising workshops and engaging with the community, asking them to pitch in and offer feedback on the look, feel and potential movements of the hand. This community includes Daniel Melville who became the first amputee to try out Open Bionics’ first prototype back in 2014. “It was eye-opening and surreal because it suddenly gave what we were doing a whole new meaning,” says Payne. “And then he shook his brother’s hand and the brother said that it felt amazing because even though he knew it was a robotic hand, it felt like shaking Dan’s hand for the first time.”
Daniel Melville was the first person to try out Open Bionics’ hand
Another vital source for the development comes from the fact that Open Bionics has made all research open source, making the designs available for everyone and providing the startup with feedback about how to further improve their devices. “We believe in open innovation and our mission is to drive the technology forward,” says Payne. “And when patents come to play, that just hampers innovation.”
However, being an innovative medtech startup has meant that the company has been forced to jump through a lot of regulatory hoops, which has kept the startup from selling prosthetics until now. But this may be about to change, thanks to a new deal with the NHS that will see the startup fit children as young as eight years old with bionic hands. “We’ve fitted two ten-year old amputees with bionic arms before but never anyone this young,” says Payne. “So I’m looking forward to see how they’ll get on with the arm.” If successful, the trial could mean that the hand could be offered through the NHS, especially since the company just acquired its CE marking, signifying the hand is fit to be sold in the EU. The data from the trial could also help the startup get its FDA approval, opening up the US market for Open Bionics.
With a stylish range of revolutionary hands about to hit the market, it certainly seems as if Open Bionics has a firm grip on the future.