Sydney healthtech startup AbilityMate creates 3D printed devices for people with a disability

- March 22, 2016 5 MIN READ

There is a revolution happening in the 3D space that some might say is a bigger revolution than the internet. It was only two years ago that a US manufacturing company made an open source version of a prosthetic hand for $500, something that would normally cost upwards of $70,000. Last year the first 3D car was printed and it was only yesterday that NASA announced its partnership with Made in Space to send the first 3D printer onto the International Space Station.

There are a range of industries and markets in which 3D printing can have a significant impact, but the possibilities of the technology in the disability space are huge, with printing technology having dramatically improved in the last few years and now able to recreate even the most intrinsic and complicated devices.

Sydney healthtech startup AbilityMate harnesses 3D printing technology to make personalised devices for people with a disability. These devices are open source and disrupt the assistive technology space by removing supply chains. Cofounder of AbilityMate Johan du Plessis said that 3D printed devices can be made at a much lower cost and customised to cater for each person’s need.

“Everyone is different and especially people with disabilities, their needs are all different so in a lot of cases mass produced products don’t really work for them, so we think that the open source movement, plus what’s happening in the 3D printing space, is really unique opportunity to take a very different approach to the way that devices for people with disabilities are made,” explained du Plessis.

Currently in the 3D space there aren’t many companies working one on one with disability clients to produce open-sourced and tailor made devices. Most devices for people with a disability are mass produced, not taking into consideration the unique condition of each person. On top of that, these devices can be extremely expensive. According to the World Health Organisation only one in ten people with a disability globally are getting the equipment they need.

For the average person technology just makes living easier; for example, a phone helps to simplify and connect you to the world. However for a person with a disability, equipment can be the difference between being able to get out into the world or staying home every day. Technology is critical for many to be able to live full and inclusive lives.

“Our mission is to find ways that assistive devices are made, not on a profit basis, but on a for purpose basis. So we’re a for purpose business which means that we do make a little bit of money but only enough to sustain the business,” said du Plessis. “Our main goal is to get people with disabilities worldwide to have the equipment that they need.”

In April last year du Plessis began working on AbilityMate after spending time working in the disability sector. With a background in AI, du Plessis was frustrated by the assistive technology industry as it fell short of providing people with exactly what they need.

Cofounder Mel Fuller had a background in 3D printing and was part of the Makers Movement, making new products out of old, discarded items. Fuller was Australia’s first female founder of a Makers Place, but was frustrated that the Makers were only printing gadgets and yoda heads. She knew that the technology could be put to better use, so teamed up with du Plessis to make tech with purpose.

AbilityMate ran some trials from makeathon events they held in Sydney. One of their first clients was a 16 year old girl with cerebral palsy. Due to the limited functionality of her hands she wasn’t able to move the joystick of her electric wheelchair or the mouse on her computer. She told du Plessis that her specialist quoted her $1,000 to make a modification to her wheelchair, which was money her parents couldn’t really afford, but were willing to pay. To manufacture and install the device would have taken eight months, and when you imagine not having control of your movement, eight months is a long time and would greatly impact the quality of your life.

“She came to our first event and our designer Kin asked her, what do you want? And this totally blew her mind that someone asked her what do you want because what’s happened up to now is people have just said, well here’s this thing, we’ve chosen this from the catalogue, this is what you wan,t right? No one has ever actually asked her, what do you want?” said du Plessis.

The girl explained that in her whole body the only part she has full control over is her middle finger, so she wanted to find a way for that finger to control all her devices. Within three hours AbilityMate had marked up the device, moulded it, tested it and 3D printed it for the girl to use immediately. Apart from the speed it took to manufacture the device, the most impressive aspect is the cost. du Plessis explained the device only cost 37 cents to make, and was given to the girl free of charge.

“When she put that thing on the change was like night and day. There were tears in our eyes. For the first time she was driving around in her wheelchair that she could fully control with that one finger. We printed another one for her mouse and you can immediately see that she can use her mouse a lot quicker than normal,” du Plessis said.

In October last year AbilityMate was awarded first prize for emerging technologies at the National Disability Insurance Agency. Next month the startup will also go through the disability-focused incubator Remarkable to test and refine its technology. Since AbilityMate began the team have been inundated with calls for projects, however they don’t have the right capacity yet to meet everyone’s needs. du Plessis explained that AbilityMate is working on an online distribution platform where they can scale and run their projects.

“Say you’re in Melbourne and you need a device, then we would send the order to your nearest micro factory in your local area, and then just have it shipped to you,” he said.

AbilityMate is working with Cerebal Palsy Alliance and Ability First in Australia. Its approach is to work with these large organisations and take on their existing relationships with people with disabilities, which opens up a group of 20,000 potential clients.

A funding round with The Vasudhara Foundation saw AbilityMate raise $20,000 in seed funding and shortly the team will also close a second round with Remarkable. Through funding, AbilityMate looks to eventually make electric wheelchairs and exoskeletons, which would cost 100 times less than current devices on the market. However du Plessis explained that the devices they make don’t always need to be as complex as an electric wheelchair as there are hundreds of small basic items that greatly impact lives of people with disabilities.

Over the last year AbilityMate has worked on creating a range of devices including joystick controllers, ramps, computer access switches, and customisable holders for people who can’t hold the most basic of items like a knife and fork. These devices are 3D printed at a Makers Space or by someone with a 3D Printer. The team are especially thankful to Makers Place in Erskineville whose community has been highly involved and engaged with the projects. du Plessis aims to build  a global community of makers who can design tailored devices and 3D print them for people to cut waiting times and immediately changes the lives of people with a disability.

Image: Johan du Plessis, Ade Ogunniyi, Mel Fuller and Kin Ly. Source: Supplied