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Robohand: where are they now?

Healthcare & Wellbeing

We catch up with the two founders of Robohand, a project that creates inexpensive prosthetics, to find out how their not-for-profit initiative is coming along.

Regular Springwise readers may wonder why Robohand isn’t ringing any bells. This is because the project was originally known as Coming Up Short Handed, before adopting their catchier new mantle. The two founders, Richard Van As and Ivan Owens, came together to form the project because they wanted to build inexpensive prosthetics to offer an alternative to the expensive models available on the market. Back when we first covered it, the project was in its early stages and the two men had only built a prosthetic prototype. Since this starting point they have made considerable progress, despite the fact that their team consists of just the two of them, as Ivan attests: ‘We started with no employees, just a project involving two guys. We are still just the same two fellows doing work with the support of our families.’ The idea for Robohand came to Richard when he lost four fingers in a wood-working accident. He looked into the cost of a prosthetic, but all the models on the market were far too expensive. Instead of saddling himself with the loss of four fingers, he decided to create his own mechanical replacement. At the same time, Ivan was building mechanical hands for use as props and Richard saw a video of his working process on YouTube. He got in touch with Ivan and the two eventually decided to pool their skills to help those who were unable to afford costly prosthetics. The two founders have had to become very good at remote working, as Ivan is based in Washington State, US and Richard in Johannesburg, South Africa. As Ivan puts it: ‘What drove us crazy when getting our project going was the challenge of being separated by 10,000 miles and having to develop ways to work together on designs despite the distance and inability to meet up in person.’ In fact, they have only spent four days working together in person. They are constantly in touch over Skype and email to keep track of each other’s progress. This is crucial as they both work on one prosthetic together so must ensure that the project makes sense as a whole. Since the beginning of this year two children have benefitted from their prosthetics – Liam and Eden. 5-year-old Liam was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome which left him without any fingers on his right hand. After visiting Richard at his workshop in South Africa he came away with a basic prosthetic that allowed him to grasp a pen and write with it. They also discovered during the process that Liam is right-handed as he was writing his letters in reverse with his left hand. Since his visit Richard and Ivan have built him a full working prosthetic, complete with fingers, and Liam is now able to pick up small and fiddly objects such as coins. Eden has recently been fitted with her new prosthetic in her requested color, pink, and is now able to pick up and throw a ball. It is achievements such as this that keep the two founders inspired: ‘We are motivated by the needs of individuals who could benefit from increased functionality with their hands and fingers… but who lack the resources to acquire a device.’ In January the Robohand founders made their design for Liam’s prosthetic freely available on the Thingiverse site, ensuring that their quest for open and affordable prosthetics could spread a little further afield. So far all their finances have been collected through crowdfunding, with a small amount coming out of their own pockets. This does limit their scope slightly, as the cost of machinery and materials mounts up. The hope is that as more people see their good work they will receive more donations. Although their funds are small, this hasn’t restricted their ambition for the project: ‘We are very happy with the way things have gone. Within five years we hope to have an established non-profit organization operating in both the US and South Africa and will have an increased outreach with our devices.’ They are planning to apply for tax exemption as a non-profit organization so that their funds can stretch further. ‘We will be applying for 501c3 status in the US and then, as time goes, partnering with people to teach others how to produce these systems so that, hopefully, access to these systems can be increased.’ The two founders have a strong vision for their project, and are willing to put financial success to one side in order to undertake work they are passionate about. ‘We believe that the best model for companies of the future is to find a way to do good work in the world while supporting one’s family. If you seek this path, it will be rewarding in more ways than just monetarily. It doesn’t bring in a six figure salary, but one can always look themselves in the mirror and believe that what they are doing is worthwhile.’ Ivan expands: ‘We do not sell anything, so financial results aren’t in the picture. As far as tangible results, however, there are now 4 people out there in the world who have a mechanical finger replacement who would have otherwise had nothing… and they all received them at no charge from our project. Things are expanding rapidly, we now have many more people who we have begun creating systems for.’ They are currently working on a prosthetic for four-year-old John. This project will provide a new challenge for the founders as John won’t be visiting either of their workshops, meaning that they only have plaster casts of his hand to work from. As part of the design process they will make use of Makerbot, a 3D printer that Springwise has covered previously, in order to print off test designs which they can then use to develop into a fully functioning prosthetic. It must be immensely rewarding for the two men to see the joy their prosthetics bring to people, and Ivan is emphatic in his faith. ‘Honestly, I cannot imagine myself doing anything else at this point in time.’ Richard’s accident could have resulted in a swift end to his career as a woodworker, however the two men’s perseverance has ensured that this potential tragedy has been transformed into an opportunity for many people to benefit from. You can read more about Robohand here, or visit the Robohand website here.