8th Apr 2015
Bristol-based Open Bionics plans to market the first $1,000 robotic prosthetic hand, dramatically reducing the cost for amputees. Chris Goodfellow meets founder Joel Gibbard to find out more.
Open Bionics was launched with the goal of making robotic prosthetics affordable and accessible to the masses.
This means targeting a $1,000 (£670) price point for custom fitted electronic prosthetics that currently retail at between £20,000 and £60,000.
The project’s genesis happened when Open Bionics founder Joel Gibbard was still in school. The 17-year-old roboticist hit upon a curious notion when looking through his notebook for the next big project; he couldn’t build anything if he lost his hands.
"I wouldn't be able to pick up a soldering iron, I wouldn't be able to use tools and so I thought I’d make a robot hand first should that problem ever arise,” Gibbard remembers. "It was a really stupid and ill-thought-out initial idea, but that was the driving force for the first time I made one."
Gibbard made a fully functioning prototype that could be used by an amputee as part of his final-year university project and returned to the idea to launch the Open Hand Project several years after graduating.
The plan was to create prosthetics designs that anybody could download and 3D print to produce dexterous, robotic hands, which had comparable functionality to leading robotic prosthetic hands at one hundredth of the cost.
The project was funded on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, raising £43,593 of a £39,000 target from 1,085 donors (the original campaign video is include below).
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The success of the campaign lead to a design being released. However, the delivery model didn’t achieve the goal of making advanced prosthetics available to the masses.
“Most of the time amputees aren’t going to want to make their own prosthetics; they don’t want a project they want a product that works really well," Gibbard says. "I thought the next step was to create a company and a base from which to continue developing and distributing the technology."
The product needed to be quality controlled, validated and regulated for use. There needs to be a support channel behind it and this requires financial stability.
Funding the idea
The company launched in April 2014 and received its first funding of £10,000 from a small business competition.
The main source of funding has been Intel’s Make it Wearable contest. Open Bionics came second winning £250,000 and Gibbard’s team has picked up several additional grants.
Intel has also helped supporting technical development by providing access to 3D scanning, and feedback on the electronic and software elements.
Gibbard stresses the importance of paying attention to guidelines and researching the organisation that’s backing a competition or grant scheme when applying.
"They're not giving the money away for no reason. Find out what it is and try and really, really look at on a low level how your proposition can benefit that," he says. "For Intel the competition was clearly about marketing. We would try and play on the things that market really well. With robotic prosthetics it’s not exactly too far fetched to see how people would really like that."
Building a team
The nature of the project meant it received numerous offers for free open-source collaboration. However, Gibbard decided pretty early on that he didn’t want to do down that route.
"I didn't want to end up purely managing a lot of other people in loads of different countries," he says. "That would be a huge task and when you’re not paying people you can’t rely on them to do things, and rightly so, all you can do is ask nicely."
Open Bionics is able to rely on relatively cheap advertising channels and connections with universities to recruit staff. The biggest challenge wasn’t finding talent, but deciding what skills were the most critical.
"As a really small startup, everyone’s doing three jobs. You actually need to hire five or six people, so you’re trying to think 'what's the most important task?'"
Gibbard says its important for early-stage startups to think about what skills the company is lacking, rather than trying to reduce your workload as an entrepreneur; "if something's taking up all of your time maybe it should be. Maybe you should be hiring somebody to do something that you’re not good at."
At the moment, Open Bionics has four employees and is about to hire a software engineer.
It's able to utilise highly-skilled university interns during the summer, with match-funding schemes like those from University of Bristol and Santander helping to reduce costs.
Incubating an idea
Open Bionics is based in an incubator with a number of tech companies including design consultancy MindSketch, hardware supplier Dawn Robotics and battle robot maker Reach Robotics.
Working in this environment leads to lots of informal conversations and problem solving, and Gibbard recommends other startups look at similar facilities.
"When you're really small it's so much nicer to be surrounded by other people that are also in startups," Gibbard says. "Even if you can't see the benefits directly, having people around you gives the advantage of being able to take a break and chat to people is invaluable."
In the case of OmniDynamics, which produces 3D printing filament maker Strooder, it’s meant the company can test a series of materials to find out what works best.
The brand is being built around the community it supports, starting with the amputees that helped fund the project and test the prototypes. Open Bionics continues to build a support base.
Gibbard says the biggest mistake startups, particularly those in the tech sector, make is spending time on marketing and publicity.
"You don't find a lot of four-person startups with someone that’s an expert in marketing and media relations," he says. "You could have the best idea in the world, but if nobody knows about it, it's still not going to go anywhere."
Open Bionics has appeared in a number of publications, including in Wired UK and the BBC, and this validation has been key to gaining investment. Winning this coverage came down to selling the emotional benefits of the product.
"It's the storytelling," Gibbard says. "The technical details of your project are not interesting to the public, so don’t talk about them. You’ve got to try and find the emotional benefits. There’s always going to be some kind of emotional benefit, otherwise no one’s going to buy it using that to your advantage is the best way to get media attention."
He also recommends starting to build a social following from the ideas inception.
The next step is a pilot scheme in June or July, which will see the hands in regular use outside of the lab for the first time.
"We're going to get feedback from sustained use, which we haven’t had yet," Gibbard says. "We've tested quite a lot with amputees, but they’ve always been with us. we haven’t let it out in the wild, so to speak."
The first model is expected to go on sale in early 2016, with a price point of £1,000 to £2,000. This doesn’t achieve the team’s end goal of a $1,000 retail price (£670), but still represents more than a ten-fold reduction in cost.
The distribution model is to release the design with a non-commercial license. This means amputees and people that know them can use the technology, and charities will be able to make and distribute them in quantities, but other companies will not be able to profit from their work.
In the future, Gibbard hopes it may be possible to go through the 'front door' of the NHS having proven the concept and demand. After the first model’s launched the team will continue its incremental development, but warns hitting the final price point will require a significant change in the way they are designed.