Smart Hand with a Social Mission
The fact that Mariam’s left hand would not develop normally was something that her parents were aware of as early as on the 12th week of her mother’s pregnancy. Today, Mariam is seven years old and she is an exceptional girl.
Mariam Niniashvili is the first person in Georgia to have received a high-tech, 3D-printed prosthetic hand built by Georgian startup Hand4Help. For the past two years Mariam has actively volunteered as a Hand4Help participant, trying new prototypes and contributing hugely to the project’s development.
Although she is generally able to do almost everything with one hand, the prosthesis has had a significant impact on Mariam’s daily life: “One cannot describe in words the joy which she experienced when she put on the prosthesis and picked up a ball for the first time in her life,” said Mariam’s mother, Tamuna, who was approached by Hand4Help two years ago.
“I agreed instantly once I heard that they were looking for patients to test prostheses. Before that, I had visited all the local clinics, centers for prostheses, surgeons, and microsurgeons, but the only hope they offered was a decorative, dysfunctional prosthesis which Mariam would be unable to use in a practical manner. The Hand4Help representatives told me that their prosthesis was functional and Mariam would be able to use it as an ordinary hand. That was crucial for me. I agreed and we got to work.”
Mariam’s first prosthesis had three fingers. “I wanted it to be pink and they made it so,” Mariam recalled.
Mariam’s mother has taught her never to hide her real hand and therefore, she puts the prosthesis on only when she needs it.
The concept of Hand4Help is to create a hand that will not imitate a real hand but will have more functions than a real one.
The Hand4Help founders developed this vision later. Before that, inspired by 3D printing technology, they merely began to build prototypes.
As Dato Kvitsiani recounts, they based Mariam’s first prosthesis on a design originally developed by the international e-NABLE community. “The first prosthesis was basic, mechanical. Since Mariam’s muscles were not yet well-developed and lacked the necessary strength, we built a three-fingered prosthesis. Now, she has a better model and we will soon provide her with an electronic version,” said Dato.
Hand4Help is the only Georgian startup working on upper limb prostheses. The prostheses it builds are 10 times cheaper than the other prostheses available on the market. This is a result of the technical solutions which Hand4Help utilizes in developing its prototypes.
“Prototyping has been significantly simplified by 3D printing and by ARDUINO, which is a programming microcontroller. It is loaded with a code which activates electronic devices. The advantage of ARDUINO is its low price and simplicity. Before a cheap microcontroller was developed, prototyping had been much more difficult and expensive. Consequently, not everyone was able to afford prostheses,” said Koba Tsertsvadze, a founder of Hand4Help.
They built the first prototype with financing from the Free University. Later, they developed a business model for a social enterprise and applied to the Europe Foundation for funding. The principle of the business model was the following: Hand4Help would create prostheses that would be given for free to those people who were unable to purchase them; in parallel, they would work on creating expensive high-tech models for sale and with the proceeds, cover the costs of the simple models.
“Creating a high-tech product is one thing, but it is another thing when it is a medical product. This requires significant testing to ensure that it is properly developed and introduced. Therefore, turning a profit from this business is a distant future prospect. When thinking about ways to mobilize funds, we discovered an Indian eye care company, ARAVIND EYE CARE, which operates according to this very model – price discrimination. We thought this model would be a good fit for us,” said Koba Tsertsvadze.
Nana Gamkrelidze, the Program Manager of Europe Foundation, recalled that Hand4Help was awarded a GEL 20,000 grant within the scope of the Social Enterprise Development program.
“The idea they submitted fit the classical definition of ‘social enterprise’ as the project was driven by a social mission, while the plan was to reinvest a large share of the profits into the achievement of social goals. It was a good case of social innovation which could set an example for other enterprises and institutions.”
The principle of volunteering was a component of the project from the very beginning. “We brought together a group of enthusiasts who possessed the necessary skills – designer, engineer, physicist, software specialist, et cetera,” said Dato.
Europe Foundation’s decision to give Hand4Help a chance to develop was quickly proven to be a successful one. Then, two significant events took place: the startup’s participation in hackathon during which Hand4Help representatives built the most innovative models, and its participation in StartUp Georgia, in which Hand4Help emerged as the winner, receiving GEL 100,000 in funding and the access to mentorship to assist it in the strategic development of the business.
Today, Hand4Help’s high-tech model has unique capabilities: it can be used in communication and interaction, it has a smart function, and it can interact with a computer and perform the function of a kind of “control board.” For example, it can remotely manipulate smartphones, answer calls by tensing muscles, et cetera.
“We do not try to eradicate disabilities with our product and therefore we do not create models resembling a real hand. Rather, we turn these disabilities into super abilities; this is precisely the motto of our company,” said Dato.
The most recent innovation that has further enhanced the prosthesis is a function which allows for playing the keyboard and an RFID sensor.
“As you know, playing a keyboard requires separate movements of various fingers, something that was impossible to do by tensing one muscle. Therefore, we added a sensor which detects the bending of the prosthesis and triggers a switch between fingers accordingly. As regards RFID technology, this is the technology used in cards; it enables the activation of certain regimes when certain objects are touched. For example, when a person rides a bicycle, a chip attached to it activates the regime on the prosthesis which is required for riding. Consequently, there is no need for buttons on the prosthesis or the change of functions by a muscle sensor,” said Dato.
Hand4Help has not started selling its product yet. These innovative startuppers still work to improveme their models through testing them, adding various functions, and actively participating in hackathons and competitions in Georgia and abroad. They have ambitious development plans and they say that they have a huge advantage on the world market as people today cannot afford high-tech prostheses. Hand4Help intends to change the market by making prostheses affordable to everyone who needs them.
“Just recently we participated in the world robotics competition and were named among the best four startups. This was a great achievement for us. The top aim now is to complete the development of the first model and to get this product to market. Thereafter we will continue to develop new models,” said Koba Tsertsvadze.
The startuppers estimate that a low-price model would not exceed USD 1,000, while a high-tech model would cost up to USD 5,000, as compared to current international prosthesis prices which start at USD 50,000.
Six beneficiaries have already received Hand4Help hands for free for the current stage of building and testing models. Considering Hand4Help’s achievements and plans, an increasing number of people in need of artificial hands will soon benefit from this student startup.
Photos by: Sera Dzneladze