A Loughborough University graduate startup is transforming the manufacture and distribution of prosthetic limbs – making them more accessible to the millions of people who need them.
Kate Walker developed and launched her social enterprise, ExpHand Prosthetics, in 2018 as part of her postgraduate dissertation – having nurtured the idea as an undergraduate.
The inspiration for the venture was meeting toddler Zoey who was born with below elbow limb loss. When Kate met her, she had never been offered a prosthetic.
In addition to people born with limb loss, more than one million amputations are performed every year – the result of accidents or diseases like diabetes.
Prosthetics are important for people born missing limbs and in rehabilitation after amputation. They can improve mobility and make daily activities more manageable, thereby supporting independent living.
Obstacles to access
About 30 million people live with limb loss and many need prosthetics but, for a variety of reasons – including expense, healthcare shortages and a lack of manufacturing expertise – can’t access them.
Most prosthetics are custom-made and individually fitted by a prosthetist, generally making them unsuitable for later use by someone else. Being custom-made, people can wait several months for them to be ready, and the devices need to be checked and serviced regularly. All of this makes prosthetics expensive – often thousands of pounds – and waiting lists are long. The problem of access is worse for children – who quickly outgrow their prosthetics – and for people in developing countries where there are few trained prosthetists and little or no manufacturing expertise.
A novel way forward
Having studied Product Design Engineering, Kate realised that 3D printing offers a realistic solution to the related problems of access, expense, delay, device longevity and sustainability. Her invention, ExpHand, is a 3D printed prosthetic arm that can be adjusted to fit any child – aged three to 10 years old. Its design is modular and uses a universal socket, making it easy to fit and adjust as a child grows – without the need of a visit to a specialist. This also means it can be passed on to someone else once the original user outgrows it, and – when it reaches the end of its useful life – its components can be recycled.
The manufacturing process is relatively quick and cost effective, with little waste – and provides opportunities for customisation in style and colour, making the devices more appealing to young people. Each unit costs less than £50 to produce, and can be created close to where the user needs it – reducing delivery costs and time.
Although intended for use in the developing world ExpHand is, of course, also suitable for children in the developed world. To maximise access, orders will be placed online and, eventually, in-store worldwide. The latter made possible via a network of franchise outlets run by organisations like NGOs and charities.
A patent application for ExpHand has been submitted. Following further testing and user trials this spring, initial UK sales are scheduled to start in the summer with the worldwide market opening up soon after. Kate is also exploring how to expand the ExpHand product range to accommodate other types of limb loss.
Startup support and recognition
In 2019, Kate was among the winners of Loughborough University’s Business Plan Competition and Enterprise Awards. She was also named Ingenuity19’s Experian Entrepreneur of the Year and was selected to take part in the EIT Healthcare Entrepreneurship Summer School, BioCity Business Accelerator Programme, and Engineers in Business Competition.
Her success continues. Earlier this month, she was named University Student Innovator at the Leicestershire Live Innovation Awards – an initiative which has opened further valuable business support contacts for her. Kate says of her achievements: “These opportunities have taught me a lot – providing expert mentoring and invaluable networking opportunities as well as much needed funding to accelerate the business while raising the profile of ExpHand.”
She says: “Being a Studio member is great. I receive training, mentoring and tailored advice as well as business funding. Its shared workspace is the perfect base for me, and I have access to the resources, facilities and expertise – across the University campus – that I need to continue refining ExpHand.”