Two companies from the Middle East are working on prosthetics to reduce hardships for people with amputations

Startup Spotlight

Oscar Pistorius’ tragic infamy obscures his many achievements. The South African runner is perhaps remembered by most from his highly publicized murder trial and conviction. Fewer people would identify him as the first Paralympic athlete to compete at the olympic games.

Getting to compete against able bodied athletes wasn’t easy, and not merely because of what one intuitively assumes. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the international governing body for the sport of athletics, had objected to his inclusion in the tournament on the grounds that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage. A-five-year dispute eventually ended in Pistorius’ favor; a court of arbitration ruled that there was no evidence that his legs allowed him any real edge. Pistorius’ sporting dispute was the first thing that came to my mind while I was chatting with 21-year-old Amjad Osman, founder of prosthetics company called Owl Bionics.

Evolution instead of repair

Owl Bionics’ vision is radical. Unlike similar companies, they are not solely interested in restoring normality for amputees, so to speak. Instead the company embraces the idea that these individuals are unique. “We see technology as a way to exceed biology,” he says, “we have to accept the idea that they are special.” It’s evolution instead of repair.

Osman was born and raised in Saudi Arabia to Sudanese parents and attended high school in neighbouring Bahrain. His interest in robotics stems from his childhood and his graduation project consisted of designing a prosthetic hand. Nearly one year after graduating as a mechanical engineer, he founded Owl Bionics in Khartoum. The company currently employs eight individuals along with two more co-founders from Sudan: Ali Bashir Ali, 23 years old, and Omar Ahmed Suleiman, 24. Both are mechanical engineering graduates: Ali is a self taught industrial designer whereas Suleiman specializes in software.

Owl bionics founders

Osman, Suliman and Bashir

The trick with prosthetics is balancing looks, functionality and cost according to Osman. Looks and functionality in particular are a trade-off relationship. A good functional arm, one that is capable of a number of moves and twists, usually looks grotesquely mechanical and tends to cost a handful as well, as much as $70,000. Better looking prosthetics, ones that try their best to look indistinguishable from a human limb, don’t do much he says. Most often, they are only capable of a single gripping motion.

The Biotron hand

Owl bionics’ prosthetic hand, Biotron, claims to solve for all three constraints. It utilizes technologies from three disruptive segments: 3D printing, the internet of things (IoT) and smart materials.

Biotron uses muscle wires instead of motors for movement. Muscle wires are thin wires that contract when an electric current is applied; a shape memory alloy that can transform between two shapes in relation to heat. This significantly reduces the weight of the appendage, by as much as 30%, which in turn results in a more natural and fluid movement of the limb.

The device can also sense liquids and heat using mechanical sensors, and is capable of relaying that information back to the user in the form of vibrations using vibrating motors. The frequency and length of the vibration indicate different temperatures and whether the material at hand is a liquid.

Biotron arm

A 3D render of the arm

Finally, the device also integrates a number of connectivity modules: a GSM chip that allows it to connect to the internet, an infrared blaster and bluetooth. With the help of a specialized app, the hand can be used to execute a number of basic navigation functions on the mobile device for instance, such as scrolling, clicking and so on.

The company is currently beta testing its product and expects to launch in about two months time. The Biotron can be pre-ordered; there are two models to choose from. The basic model, which should cost around $2,000, will provide all the mechanical functions they’ve developed. A more advanced $5,000 model will include the sensing and connectivity features.

Making prosthetics accessible

In Jordan, another company is tackling the same problem, albeit with a different approach and focus. Dubbed Low Cost PPC Prosthetic Leg, it concerns itself primarily with affordability and access. This became immediately apparent when I spoke with its founder, 51-year-old Mohammad Ismail.

Ismail is quick to cite World Health Organization estimates on the number of amputees worldwide, which puts the figure at approximately 32 million. 80% of those individuals live in developing countries, and only 5% are fitted with prosthetics. “Many factors may contribute to this very low rate of prosthetic fitting. However, the economical factors are likely to play a substantial role.”

Typically, prosthetics are designed using unique and hard to find materials, which, although common in the Western countries, are typically hard to come by in our part of the world. But one of the main components of the composite they use is polypropylene, a plastic that can be found abundantly in everyday items, packaging, automotive parts, and so on. This lessens costs significantly.

Polypropylene is ideal for prosthetics as well; a tough yet flexible material that has a high melting point, which renders it resistant to heat induced deformations.

These prosthetics are also very light, almost 40% lighter than other prosthetics. This means that patients can move more freely and with less energy. What’s more, another used component, copolymer pylon, adds flexibility to the material. The added flexibility in turn means that the limb is able to absorb and release kinetic energy during the patient’s movement, making it feel even lighter. Combined, lightness and flexibility mean that the limb is able to sustain more impact as well.

The limbs cost around $150. The prosthesis and its manufacturing mechanism were patented in late 2014.

One of the problems associated with prosthetics is transport. Typically, prosthetics are urgently required in conflict zones where land transport is evidently difficult, if not impossible. Air transport isn’t easy either. Typically, prosthetics are made using liquid chemicals, which are difficult to transport in planes: they are toxic, they require a special permit to fly and they can be very costly to ship. Ismail’s composite plastic sheets by contrast do not suffer from any of those limitations.

Ismail holds a diploma in orthopedic Technology, which covers both Prosthetics and ’]Orthotics,from the  National Training Institute of Orthopedic Technologists, in Amman. He had been working on his tech for over 11 years, all through his tenures at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq and in Sudan. He was finally able to implement it at the Project Hope, a Sudanese government rehabilitation hospital in Khartoum. So far he’s fitted about 700 individuals. His next goal is to help spread the technology to Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria.

Low cost PPC Prosthetic Leg

‘Low cost PPC Prosthetic Leg’ won the third prize of the Social Entrepreneurship Track at the 9th MIT EF Arab Startup Competition.