Generation Impact: Young Inventor's Love of Robotics Puts Prosthetic Arms Within Reach
By Courtney Rubin
Easton LaChappelle made his first robotic hand in eighth grade — a confection of electrical tubing, fishing lines, and tape made in his bedroom, watching instructional videos. The fingers could move, but it couldn’t grab objects very accurately. Immediately he wondered: How can I make it more human-like?
The question has driven him ever since. Every year for his high school science project, he would make a better version. (His junior year project— a 3D-printed robotic arm that could shake hands — won second place at the 2013 International Science and Engineering Fair, and was impressive enough for LaChappelle to be invited to the White House.) And now, at age 25, he’s the founder of Unlimited Tomorrow, which aims to make prosthetic devices more affordable using 3D printing technology.
His a-ha moment for his startup? When a young girl stopped by his project at the science fair, wearing an $80,000 prosthetic hand that was “a human-like claw with one sensor she was going to outgrow in a year,” he said. “I couldn’t believe this thing I made for $200 in my bedroom was better.”
LaChappelle and 14-year-old Aashna Patel, who received one of the first prosthetic limbs the company produced — are the subjects of an inspiring film called The Inventor, the second in the Generation Impact series produced by the Garage by HP. Filmmakers Sarah Klein and Tom Mason of Redglass Pictures said they were drawn to LaChappelle as a subject partly because his invention requires synergy — after LaChappelle’s work is done, the customer has to learn to operate the device using muscle memory.
More Generation Impact: Meet more young people changing the world with their brilliant ideas.
It required a lot of “concentration and fortitude,” Mason says, for Patel, an eighth grader, who we watch in the film as she learns to use the hand to throw a ball, hold an onion, or make any other motion she might want. The Inventor is also a tale of the age we’re in — where a curious mind using not much more than open source designs and ingenuity — can invent devices that couldn’t have been developed even a decade ago in a lab, and shake up an entire industry.
“The level of innovation in this story could only happen right now,” Klein says.
LaChappelle has been inventing practically since birth. He grew up in the one-stoplight town of Mancus, Colorado, a “forcing function,” he says, because the town’s tiny school (his graduating class had 23 students) couldn’t keep up with him. He was the kind of kid who would ask the local drug store for all the disposable cameras they’d throw away after they developed the film — he wanted to extract the capacitor (the thing that made the clicking noise and powered the flash.)
He dreamed of working in robotics, and figured one way to gain entrée into the field was to design a robotic hand. For his 16th birthday he got his first 3D printer — at the time, barely a decade ago, was such new technology he had to buy it on Kickstarter.
In 2013 — when LaChappelle was just 17 — bestselling author Tony Robbins watched a TEDTalk LaChappelle gave on 3D printing and prosthetics and called to offer seed funding. It was the push LaChappelle needed to skip college (“School was going to slow me down in a lot of ways,” he says.) and start Unlimited Tomorrow. About three and a half years ago, he moved the company from Colorado to Rhinebeck, New York, so he could have better access to tech talent from New York and Boston. (Plus one of his mentors, Jonathan Cohen of Idealab, had Rhinebeck office space he could use.) The company now has about 20 employees, and has created hundreds of limbs.
As 3D printing technology has improved, so have LaChappelle’s designs. Until recently, 3D printed material wasn’t durable — if you banged a hand against the counter the pinky finger would break off.
Now, though, HP’s 3D printing technology allows him to print engineer-grade plastic in full color. Customers choose their skin tone from printed color swatches and use a tablet Unlimited Tomorrow sends them to do a 3D scan. Then the company makes a “check” socket — the way the hand or arm is attached to the person — ships it out, and assesses fit and comfort over a video call. A “final socket” is then made, and the limb is printed. The total cost: $8,000 (when kids inevitably outgrow their first one, the next one is $4,000.) Compare this to more traditional prosthetic arm, which cost at least $10,000 for something functional, all the way up to $100,000 for the kind of device controlled by muscle movements that Unlimited Tomorrow is producing. Consider, also, that a child will require a new prosthesis roughly every 12 to 14 months until adulthood, and that even after that, prostheses need to be replaced about every three years.
“Our passion is around helping children because they are an underserved demographic,” LaChappelle says.
For Aashna, LaChappelle’s invention was a far cry from the one she’d tried at age 3 or 4 — one so uncomfortable (“like dead weight,” she said) she had rejected both it and the idea of ever having a prosthetic limb.
“It just looked like an arm, honestly,” she says of the one that arrived from Unlimited Tomorrow. She added: “I think I was just really happy that it felt comfortable and it was moving when I wanted it to.”