20th December 2023
Thrings Senior Associate Joe Watkins meets Helder Goncalves, UK Prosthetist for medical technology developers Open Bionics
What is the story behind Open Bionics?
We are a Bristol-based robotics company on a mission to make 3D printed prosthetics beautiful, functional and more accessible.
The company was founded by Samantha Payne MBE and Joel Gibbard MBE in 2014 and has grown with its community over the years to provide prosthetics for people born without hands or who lose hands to accident, injury, or illness.
We are proud to have won more than 30 engineering and innovation awards including two British Engineering Excellence awards and the global Robotics for Good Award.
The idea came from Joel’s time at university when he set out on a project to design a prosthetic arm that was accessible to everyone. This was the first step in the process that led to the creation of Open Bionics and the subsequent development of what has now become our flagship project - the Hero Arm.
What is the Hero Arm?
The Hero Arm is the world’s first medically approved 3D printed bionic arm and has completely changed the template for what prosthetics can do and how they are perceived since it was launched in 2018.
Made from tough Nylon PA12, the Hero Arm is robust while remaining lightweight, this is really important because an amputee has to wear the Hero Arm all day and every day. Each Hero Arm is custom-built and uses myoelectric sensors which detect underlying muscular contractions generated from specific muscle groups in the forearm. These are then amplified and converted to intuitive and proportional bionic hand movements.
The socket that fits in the arm is 3D printed in soft and flexible material to fit the wearer with the rest of the arm being manufactured in a matter of months.
As of this year, we are now able to provide Hero Arms to people through the NHS which has been a massive deal for us and for our wearers as it means even more people on the waiting list can have access to this life-changing technology.
Do you provide arms for all ages?
We have provided arms for hundreds of adults in the UK and across the world as well as to children as young as eight.
We have partnered with Disney and Marvel through their Techstars Accelerator, a scheme they launched to help grow small tech companies. Not only did this give us access to their knowledge and their network, but we hold the royalty free licence that has enabled us to create covers for the Hero Arm inspired by children's favourite movie characters.
For a young person, there’s still a stigma attached to being limb different, but if you are a child who has an arm like Iron Man, R2-D2 or Elsa, it re-frames conversations, turning their disability into a superpower!
Is every arm made in Bristol?
Yes, they are. We started in Bristol and we are very proud to still call it home with every Hero Arm being designed and produced in our headquarters before being shipped out across the world.
From here we have produced arms for customers in the USA where we have four clinics and we are also starting to provide more for people in European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
We have also been working in Ukraine over recent months and have provided a number of Hero Arms to veterans as part of work we have been doing with their rehabilitation centres. I myself have been over there three or four times in the past year, which has been a really rewarding experience.
What is next for Open Bionics?
Our mission is to provide individuals with limb differences technology that helps them reach their goals, makes daily tasks easier, and allows them to do more, but we are not stopping there. Our latest product, the Hero Flex, is an activity arm for amputees with over 50 terminal devices, whatever your activity, whether it is kayaking, mountain biking, golf or going to the gym, it’s all possible.
Outside of that, our main goal is to keep a close relationship with our community as it continues to grow. We want to continue delivering products that are accessible, and functional which make a positive difference to the user.
To find out more about Open Bionics and the Hero Arm, visit openbionics.com