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This week we caught up with woman to watch in 2016 and CoFounder of Open Bionics, Samantha Payne. We got her view on growing limbs in labs, 3D printing hands, the future of robotics and women in tech.

Imagine if custom made, carefully designed, bionic hands and arms for amputees were affordable, 3D printed and only took 40 hours to produce. Set up in 2014, Open Bionics are doing just that and after only a year of rapid prototyping aim to be on sale by the end of 2016. Their hand uses soft robotics to closely replicate bones, ligaments and skin that make up a human hand and it's all open source allowing everyone to benefit and make adaptations. What Open Bionics are doing is not only life changing for the millions of amputees across the globe, it’s also a massive leap forward in democratising technology.

Q: Tell us about the history of Open Bionics and how you got involved.

A: I was a journalist and I was covering a story about a crowdfunding campaign called Open Project, the idea was to raise money to develop an open source 3D printed robotic hand that, one day, could become a prosthetic hand for amputees. I went to meet him and it was Joel Gibbard. I really fell in love with it and wanted to be involved. The idea was to make 3D printed prosthetic hands, but totally open source and accessible to people all over the world. From his research, Joel found that robotic hands can cost anywhere from £30k to £80k and he was framing the same functionality for £2,000. While that was his plan, at that point he hadn't built anything.

Q: So how did you go from this grand idea to actually creating Open Bionics?

A: So when I joined, we pitched Open Bionics at Intel’s Make it Wearable competition and won £200,000. This gave us the time to do loads of customer interviews with amputees. We met with hundreds of hand amputees and heard about all the issues and problems that they were having with their prosthetic devices. We also met a couple of amputees who got into the maker spirit, took arts and crafts to their prosthetics and scribbled on them and wrapped bits of material around them to make them a little bit colourful. I was like that's a really good idea, why isn't that being offered, why aren't there prosthetics that are really fashionable and why do they have to look lifelike, why do they have to look human? At that point, we had made a blue robotic hand and a black robotic hand and we hadn't paid any sort of attention to the colours we were using because we were just using what was in the lab. After testing, we started thinking a lot more about what they should look like and had a lot of fun with the visuals and coming up with the Iron Man idea. When you get the chance to have a robotic hand, it doesn't have to look like a human hand.

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Q: We know you want to launch to the public this year, how’s that shaping up?

A: Right now, we're really focused on getting all of our documentation together for CE marking and clinical trials. It's hard work keeping your head down and getting through it. We've spent a year on development and we think we've got the hand at a really good point where it's very useful and offers a lot of value to an amputee. Now, we have to knuckle down and get through all of the documentation and get everything certified, make sure everything's tested, make sure everyone in the medical industry is happy that it does what it says it does.

Q: Could you talk about the technology you have within the prosthetics that you're making?

A: At the moment, it's 3D printed using mediflux TP material and there are five measures, a battery and an electronics board. The difference is we also use EMG sensing. That’s what makes our hands bionic: we use EMG sensors so when the wearer squeezes their muscles, that tells the fingers to move and depending on the type of squeeze they give the muscles will tell the hand to perform different movements. 

Q: What about growth? There are a couple of large companies using desktop 3D printing using large warehouses and 24 hour technicians. How do you plan to scale Open Bionics?

A:  We plan to do the same thing and it's particularly a good manufacturing method for us because our prosthetics are custom, they can't be mass produced. We make them all individually. It’s hard to scale bespoke items but with 3D printing you can manage to keep the costs down and keep the cost to the consumer low.

Q: Last year, Massachusetts General Hospital spoke about how they are growing rat limbs in labs, the implications are obviously massive for the future of prosthetics. What are your thoughts?

A: It's really interesting at the moment. Just the other day the UK had the first ever hand transplant operation. There are multiple fields that are advancing in different ways to help hand amputees. Lab grown limbs, 3D printing, cells and 3D printing human limbs, it's all very interesting but it's all very early research. I can't really make a good estimation of which one's going to succeed. What we’re trying to do is try to make an immediate fix. We know that there's technology that can really enhance people's lives that exists now but there's a huge financial barrier to people being able to use it and our mission is to take that technology, lower that financial barrier so more people have access to it. That's an immediate solution whereas growing limbs in labs is not.

Q: There’s a fine line in social good, profit and scaling. How are you funded at this point?

A: We've been around for around a year and so far, like all start-ups that have been around for a year, we just pitch our product idea and try to raise seed funding and grant money. That's how we've been operating so far, we have the support of Intel, an investor in textiles and Nesta. We try to fund our idea as much as we can through winning technology competitions. Because what we're doing is so new and innovative, it's perfect for some of these competitions so we're going to try and reach market without attracting VC money.  We have talked with investors but it seems like the best strategy is to prove to the market first and then get investor money to scale. A lot of people have told us to do a Kickstarter.  I think it would go quite well but we’re also looking at Crowdcube, so you may hear from us soon.  

Q: Can you tell us your favourite use case of Open Bionics so far?

A: I've got two top moments. Probably the best moment was with a ten year old boy who'd never tried a bionic hand before. When he got it on and got it working just by playing with it and picking it up and he was really happy, his parents were really happy. They were surprised at how technology has jumped forward for them because what he was given was a helper hand that didn't do anything. We made him a hand that matches the size of his other hand, so it looked like he was wearing a glove and for his parents it was a really big moment. 

The other moment that was pretty special, a maker in the US downloaded our hand design, 3D printed it and made one for his friend. His friend was a war hero. He lost all of his limbs in Afghanistan and was just this incredible guy, really incredible and together, they just got a workshop together and started testing these hands that we'd put online and adding their own developments, so they developed a bit of a wrist and they 3D printed a wrist for it.  Seeing other people take our design and especially amputees getting involved in the development elsewhere in another country where we haven't tracked these people down and asked them to do it, they're just doing it, that's been really special.

Q: A question from the community! @OfficerMods asked: how soon will it be until bionic arms are more functional than flesh and blood?

A: That's a great question. I think a really long time. I think when you start doing work like this you start to have a deep appreciation for the human body, how it works and how it's magical, the design of the human hand.  It's been really crazy to try and replicate that functionality. We look at the difference between the bionic and the human hand, for example, for a kid's hand we’ve added a sound and vibration. We can make them look very cool and so there's different pluses. We're trying to make it really cool to have a bionic hand, so you have super-human functionality. You can make your hand light up at night or maybe in the future you might have an integrated smartphone or smartwatch that just fits in your hand as part of your hand. That's what we're looking to do. But being able to feel objects, the weight and the texture and the heat is something that's very hard to replicate.

Q: Finally, congratulations as a couple of weeks ago you were listed as one of five women in tech to watch out for in 2016. With initiatives like doteveryone aiming to rebalance the gender gap, there’s a lot of chatter about women in tech. What are your thoughts on this? 

A: It's super important because that's a conversation that still needs to be had. Some people say everyone's equal now and everyone has the same opportunities but it's not true. Women are paid less, women are promoted less, women have less visibility in leadership roles, they're not on boards very often. Even in start-ups, there are so many studies that show that investors are biased towards men and there's one study that showed the same pitch given exactly the same, word for word, but presented by a female and a male. The male presenter got 90% of the funding. They were pitching the same idea but it was just purely a different voice. That bias came out and so I think it's really important that people are talking about the gender gap. It can only be a positive thing to be honest.

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