This Google-funded startup prints 3D hands for disabled kids so they can feel like 'superheroes'

Lucas Lok and Ari SolorioYouTubee-NABLE Volunteer Lucas Lok and Ari Solorio pose with her pink bionic hand.

Ari Solorio, born without a left hand, found it difficult to ride a bike when all her other friends could. She started off swimming in circlesbecause one arm was larger than the other, and as a serious dancer, she had problems balancing herself properly. 

But now she feels like a superhero.

That’s because Ari came home one day with a neon pink bionic hand, something that most other 10 year olds don’t have.

So how did she get it? It turns out that one day Ari and her mother, Maria Solorio, wanted to take a break from watching the track and field races at the Special Olympics. After looking around some Google booths at the event, a large, neon bionic hand sitting on a table caught Ari’s eye, and she made a beeline for it to the delight of volunteers around her. 

Lucas Lok, an engineer manning the booth, worked all night to make sure that he printed a similar 3D mechanical hand to fit Ari’s measurements. Within 24 hours, Ari came back and received one of the best gifts of her life.

“There’s a lot of prosthetics that are heavy, uncomfortable, and have an awkward skin colour,” Solorio told Business Insider. “They’re not hot pink and look like bionic hands. This is so much cooler and makes [Ari] feel really special. It’s fun. It’s something that a 10 year old would have.”

e-NABLE, the Google-funded startup in charge of creating Ari’s bionic hand, takes advantage of the growing 3D printing trend and the do-it-yourself movement.

Recently, e-NABLE received a grant of $US600,000 from the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities initiative that looks to fund and partner up with tech startups that focus on providing solutions for those with disabilities. Google started with a core investment of $US20 million, and has reviewed hundreds of companies on a rolling basis. The challenge closes at the end of September.

Founder Jon Schull emphasises that e-NABLE isn’t a prosthetic company, but rather a community of digital humanitarians who are trying to use technologies like 3D printing to help underserved communities. 

“The real surprise about this is the indirect and direct personal relationships I see,” said Schull, a research scientist at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC). “Cool tech like this makes children smile, parents weep, and nerds rejoice.”

e-NABLE’s open-floor platform recruits volunteers all over the world to create and print designs for others in their local environment, providing an inexpensive and accessible alternative for customers like Ari. Schull said that comparing e-NABLE’s designs to conventional prosthetics is like asking kids to choose between peanut butter and caviar —  most kids are going to get more excited about the peanut butter.

Google boothGoogleThe Google booth at the Special Olympics.

“The hands can have a magical ability to make a kid feel good about his or her special hand or arm, and give them some confidence,” Schull said. “The other kids at school think they’re really lucky. It turns out to be as important psychosocially as it is mechanically.”

Kids are giving back with their own avant-garde designs. Schull noted one, who, with the help of his father, 3D printed a hand with two thumbs so that he could “grip his light saber,” and also sketched a design for a clamshell-like hand. Another customer received a hand, and was then inspired to design and send out an arm. 

e-NABLE is working on future projects like ones involving motor assist for people who don’t have elbows, as well as exoskeletons that would use arm movement to open and close fingers. Schull said his startup is looking to tap into Haiti, Middle East, Africa, and other places as it expands.

“There’s a whole body out there,” Schull said. 

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