Going out on a Bionic Limb with Joel Gibbard

Open Bionics         
21 December 2022

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Many people associate prosthetic limbs with nude-colored imitations of human limbs. Something built to blend into a society where people have all of their limbs while serving functional use cases. On the other end of the spectrum are the highly optimized prosthetics used by Athletes, built for speed, low weight, and appearing nothing like a human limb.

As a child under 12 years old, neither of these categories of prosthetics particularly speaks to you. Open Bionics, founded by Joel Gibbard and Samantha Payne, was started to create a third category of prosthetics. One that targets the fun, imaginative side of children, while still providing the daily functional requirements.

Through partnerships with Disney and Lucasfilms, Open Bionics has built an array of imagination-capturing prosthetic limbs that are straight-up cool.

Joel Gibbard dives into why they founded Open Bionics, and why you should invest in their company as they are getting ready to let the general public invest in them for the first time.

Joel Gibbard

Joel Gibbard lives in Bristol, UK and graduated with a first-class honors degree in Robotics from the University of Plymouth, UK.

He co-founded Open Bionics alongside Samantha Payne with the goal of bringing advanced, accessible bionic arms to the market. Open Bionics offers the Hero Arm, which is available in the UK, USA, France, Australia, and New Zealand. Open Bionics is revolutionizing the prosthetics industry through its line of inspiration-capturing products.



Abate: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Robohub podcast. How are you doing?

Joel: Very well, thank you. How are you?

Abate: Pretty good. Pretty good. So, um, I actually to to tell you a little bit of background. I, I actually, uh, have been around your company for quite a bit. Um, I know you guys are based out in the uk. I think, uh, I, if you could just give a little bit of background about what you guys, um, are doing and, and who you are, that would be great.

Joel: Yeah, absolutely. So our company is called Open Bionics and we are making bionic arms for people with upper limb differences. And we, we’ve, we’ve been working on trying to bring technologies like 3D scanning, 3D printing, 3D design to the prosthetics industry and bring the benefits along with them. So it’s a great technology for custom manufacturer of custom products.

Every single prosthesis is bespoke to the individual. Um, and so we’re working on trying to make that scalable, really high quality and bring with it user benefits. being able to make prosthetics really lightweight, um, which is incredibly important, and having a bit more flexibility on the aesthetic design as well, which is also really, really important.

Abate: Yeah. Yeah. No, your team has definitely built a, a really fun product in a, in a space that’s like generally not that fun, you know? Um, so big kudos on that. Uh, what about yourself? Well, give us a little background on your own history.

Joel: So my, um, my, uh, interest, so I, I, I got really, really interested in robotics when I was younger. So teenage years, uh, even before that was constantly, Obsessed with Lego technic and building robots and, and um, radio control cars and things like that. Um, and then that took me to wanting to study robotics at university, which is what I did studied at University of Plymouth, which was one of the first, um, universities actually offering a degree in robotics. um, and during that time I began, uh, get getting interested in robotic hands. I think, I think that’s like a, a rite of passage for, um, people that get interested in robotics is, is like becoming interested by TIC Robotics. And so you’ve got loads cool stuff there like Hexapod, hexapod robots and um, you know, allop and stuff like that.

But for me that was robotic hands was where that, that really developed an interest. Um, and I think it was something about the. , I think I deemed the, the dexterity of human hands as one of the things that enabled me to, to, to do a lot of the things that I love doing, and I think that’s why it fascinated me so much.

So I started looking into that, started researching the applications for it, and got really captivated by the, the idea of, of bionic hands and, and the products that were coming to market at that time, which was like 2000. What, 2007, 2008, 2009, they were the first bionic hands coming to market. So it was, it was really exciting time for, for that kind of technology in the industry.

And so I, so I did a, a pro, my final year project with my, um, my undergrad degree was, was making a robotic hand.

Abate: Yeah. Yeah. And just to, you know, give us a picture of like, what, what, what was the history of robotic hands up until that point? I think you mentioned around 2000, 2007, 2008 is when you did your degree. Um, and then, you know, 3D printing, obviously, you know, it, it enabled your company partially as well as, uh, a lot of other.

people in this space for like, working with, um, biological systems that, that have a lot more variability from one to the other. So what was that history like from the, say the, the early two thousands, late 1990s, um, into the, the 2010s.

Joel: Well, from, well, yeah, from, I’ll speak from my, from my perspective of it, but the, so it was, it was the exact same time. 2009, I think was the wrap wrap project. So it’s, it was the exact same time that desktop 3D printing was, was gaining in popularity as well. And so that’s why, that’s why that, that the, the merge of those technologies was really, I mean, kind of felt obvious at that point.

But, uh, but yeah. So in terms of the prosthetics industry, The, there’s this underlying technology, myoelectric control, which has, which has been around for a really long time, since like the seventies, which is where we have electrodes that detect signal from muscles. Same kind of thing as ecg that’s detecting heart rates.

Really similar kind of, uh, technology, but the electrical signals it develops are coming straight off the muscles. Uh, and it can be any muscle, not just [00:05:00] the, the heart. So we use it. The muscles in the forearm to control the, the hand. So that technology had been around for a while and had really kind of made its way into the prosthetics industry, but it was controlling really, really simple devices.

So it’s like a effectively a claw that opened and closed. Sometimes it was made to look like a claw, sometimes it was made to look like a hand, but it was just a really, really simple terminal device. So the, since like. Early two thousands touch bionics in Scotland. Started, started working on, um, the, well, actually it was way earlier than that, that the project really, I believe the project originally started, but then started becoming a company and started bringing product to market.

And, and that was one of the first ones to have multi articulating joints. So every single finger had its own motor and they could move independently and have, have different grip modes.would that be coming from different parts of the arm that you would control each of the digits individually, like different muscles or each doing their own control?

So yeah, so that would, that would make sense. But that, that still hasn’t been perfected. So at that point it was still a two channel control system. Um, and indeed our product still has a two channel control system. So one sensor. To open the hand, one sentence to close the hand so you can then change between different grip modes to get the hand to do different things.

But the control inputs, while quite intuitive, are also quite basic cuz it’s proportional power, but just open and close. So some really cool work going on has been going on for, for the last decade or so in trying to go way beyond that and have much finer dexterity. And it’s, uh, it’s just been a really hard problem to solve because not everyone’s muscle physiology after having had a, an amputation or being born with a congenital limb difference is the same.

And so with things like machine learning, That have become way more established now. I think that the, the technologies can improve there exponential.

Abate: Yeah, that, that’s really interesting. Um, because on one hand, you know, you’ve built, uh, a hardware platform that can adapt to different, the variations in the biological systems, and like 3D printing has enabled that, but the software is also, um, the control system actually also needs to catch up and be able to adapt to just a, a wide variety of signals that they can get.

Um, but as it stands right now, like just having this two channel. Uh, communication that is pretty established across like a variety of different amputee types. Um, like the reasons behind why they’re amputated. Okay.

Joel: Yeah. Yeah. And we find that we can get that system to work with the vast, vast majority of patients. So, so that’s always the, always the challenge. And then this, and you mentioned like the control system and dexterity of the hands. There’s also the feedback, and that’s something for the future even. It’s not in, there’s not really, there’s not like, I’d say particularly well mapped sort of feedback at the moment on any, um, upper limb prosthetics.

But that’s another thing. So, so people can feel through the prosthesis. So the, the, the challenge with it is that it’s, uh, there’s lots of complexity to, to how to, how to, how to kind of, Create all of the functionality and sensations that you want to. Um, and, uh, and in, in a really small space in something that’s really lightweight and something that’s totally custom made.

Abate: Yeah. So do you guys have a software angle to this product as

Joel: well?

Well, yeah, so there’s actually two software angles. Um, so there’s the, the one which is our parametric computer eight design system that we use to design each hero arm. Um, which is kind of the, the, the, uh, The, the, the back end to how we, how we customize each heroin. And then the other one is we’ve got an app, which is a companion app for the heroin.

So it enables people to do, um, different like grip modes. They can, uh, they can configure, configure it, um, And we’ve also built into that training guides and training aids so that when somebody gets their hero arm, right, we’ve got the instruction for use and the quick start guide and the manuals and everything.

And we don’t necessarily believe that everybody is gonna read through all of those. So, but we’ve, we’ve had. A lot of success with people engaging with the app, which has all of the information in there. But it’s really like walkthroughs is interactive. It’s res actually responding to the muscle signals, um, and kind of coaching people through the process of learning how to operate it. And so we built, we built that out this year. And [00:10:00] from a, from sort of a foundational technological standpoint, th this was a forward thinking move because as. Introduce new functionality. We’ve got that channel to continuously, um, make sure that everybody knows how to, how to utilize any new features that we roll out.


Abate: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, so what’s interesting there is, uh, so you mentioned earlier around, you know, some developments around, um, being able to control motors through like muscle signals and, um, potentially even having like some machine learning algorithms that can really make this thing adaptable from one person to the other.

So, in theory, could those, um, ML models be running on the iPhone? and then, uh, just getting those muscle signals, et cetera, from uh, the, from the arm itself. So it’s just sort of like linked in passing that over Bluetooth and then doing some of the specialized control that way?

Joel: Uh, nice idea. Um, , I don’t wanna, don’t wanna say no, but my, my, uh, my instinct is that the. The latency would be too high with Bluetooth, but I might be wrong. Um, but the, the, along those lines, is it what, what we were thinking with the, with the app and the, and the, and the Bluetooth connectivity was so we can, we can do now over the air firmware updates for the hero arms for the fleet of your arms in the field.

So, and we, we also have, um, like anonymous ag, ag aggregate, what’s the word? Aggregated, uh, data, data, um, collection going on. So we, we, so we get much better information about how they’re being used. Um, so this, this was kind of the thinking was like setting us up in a position long term to be able to do some of these really cool things that we’ve not had the bandwidth to do in the past. And when we do pull them off, then being able to roll them out to all of the arms that everybody has at that moment.

Abate: Yeah. Yeah. So I, I imagine there’s, uh, maybe, uh, there’s certainly a micro control in each of these, uh, arms. And then is there a computer as well in there, like a microprocessor or anything?

Joel: There is, there’s three. So each electrode has one and the hand has one. But with the, with the current, um, design, we’ve, uh, we’ve kind of, my understanding is that we’ve pretty much maxed out the. Available power, or, I dunno if it’s related to memory or power, but either way, it’s, it’s got, it’s got to the point where, uh, a major, a major thing like, um, machine learning patterns we couldn’t do with the current, um, hardware.

But there’s lots of things that we can do. Like, for example, new grip modes, um, other, other, other kind of new control inputs. So that’s, that’s something that. perfectly positioned to be able to do in an incremental way, introduce new features.

Abate: Yeah. So, you know, I, I’m not super familiar with the space, but where are people, like where the, the, is the research for this happening and, uh, are you guys just eagerly watching from a distance until, you know, the, the technology catches up and you can turn that, um, fold that into your business?

Joel: In some, in some areas we are, and in others we are very proactive. So, but because it’s, you know, it’s a, it is a niche segment and. There’s, there’s, so there’s still so far to go. You do have to like pick and choose your battles. Um, if you, if you actually wanna get something to market, you can’t, you can’t sort of do it all.

Um, and so there are, there are different people focusing on different things. And one of the things, things that we’ve chosen to focus on is the, the, um, Automating to the extent that we can, the customization process of making each arm. And so that’s something that we’ve, that we’ve been, we’ve done really effectively with the hero arm.

And that’s, that’s been a major change to the way that the, the product’s delivered because we’ve got one integrated design for a prosthesis that is sort of delivered and fit to the patient where. Most of the market works on the basis that the, the clinician buys components and then makes hand or with, with their workshop and their tech technical team hand makes the prosthesis at, at the place where it’s being delivered.

Abate: Yeah. Yeah. And, and you know what your team has done on, on the, um, the physical design side. You know, it’s, it’s really amazing, um, very, very fun designs. Could you like describe what they look like, um, for people? Do you have some around you?

Joel: Sure. I, I don’t have, I’m at home at the moment, so I, I, I, I [00:15:00] often do have a bionic arm kicking around, but not right now. Um, but uh, yes, the design is, is, um, so we use, so we have a 3D printed frame, um, for which we use, um, multijet Fusion, HP’s Fusion printer. So it’s like, It’s a black nylon is what it comes out like.

And it’s, um, and we have like an open core design. So it, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s ventilated and it’s lightweight on the basis that it’s not completely solid. that’s like the basic frame. But then on the outside we have these covers that you put on over the top that attach magnetically. So you can change the aesthetic day-to-day.

And those are, are much more customized in the way that they look. So we have all different colors and we’ve even gone so far as to work with companies like Disney and Marvel and Lucas Film to get licenses to make. The Iron Man covers. Um, and so you can have your bionic arm look like Iron Man’s arm. And the idea behind that was that for, for kids in particular, although, uh, it’s, it’s definitely of interest to, to some of our adult patients as well, but for, for kids in particular, they can, they can overcome something that they might have looked at for. Um, you know, looked at from through, through the lens of being self-conscious about their, their difference and flip that around to being something that they’re kind of really proud to show off and everybody’s jealous of. So that’s worked really, really well.

Abate: Yeah, no, it’s, uh, it’s really amazing for a startup, you know, um, you guys are, well now, seven years old, so, um, been around for quite some time. But to be able to set up partnerships like Lucas Film, uh, Disney, like these are things that really, uh, unlock. , um, your access to like people’s imaginations and then therefore customers, how did you, how did you go about getting those partnerships?

Joel: It’s a great question and I think it’s a really unorthodox. Route that we took, because I remember like 2013, even before Open, even before we founded Open Bionics, reaching out, I think, um, yeah, it was, I, I reached out, just found the right person or what I thought was the right person to email at, uh, at Marvel to ask the question. And, uh, they, I just got like a stock lawyer response saying no kind of thing. And, uh, and then, but we, we, we didn’t really let go of the idea and then an opportunity arose for us to participate in the Disney Accelerator, um, which was a program that ran for a few years. Not sure if they still do it, but it’s definitely changed a lot since we did it. but they would take on startups, 10 startups per year with the intention of then forging relationships and and licensing agreements. That would then, would then last, last, long time thereafter. So we were really, really lucky to, to get, get a chance to participate on that program because for the most part it was commercially driven, I would say.

So they were looking for companies making toys that they could then license or other, other kind of, lots of really interesting products as well, but things that they typically would look to, um, look, look to, to, to use in their parks or in different products that they were looking at doing. But with us, they looked at it for different reasons other than purely the, the commercial.

So it’s much more because they thought it was a really great thing to, to be involved with and to do.

Abate: Yeah. Yeah. No, I mean, I, I’ve seen, uh, some of the, uh, the marketing materials that you guys have put out. Um, you know, this, this kid with a Black panther, and he is got like his custom, uh, um, plates on. And then, you know, um, a lot of movies also sort of have this cyborg type of, um, character that, that you can like really seamlessly, um, merge into these, uh, prosthetic limbs.

Joel: Yeah, that’s the, it is, it is been a popular theme in science fiction. We worked with EDOs Montreal as well to get the, the Adam Jensen covers, which, which look really cool. So, um, people, people kind of ask the question like, Can you make the, the things like that? Can you make the Ironman armor? Can you make the DSX arm not expecting the answer to be?

Oh, yeah, yeah. We’ve, we’ve done that and we offer it.

Abate: What’s the craziest thing somebody request?

Joel: Oh. We’ve had, we’ve had loads of, um, crazy requests from people. There’s a, a lot of. More sort of free thinking. Cust of our, even of our customers are end users will ask for like e e extra human [00:20:00] functionality from their prosthetics. So, um, I mean, what was the Yeah, a taser

Abate: My God.

Joel: taser in it, um, to, uh, There’s all kinds of things that are, um, so there’s more basic things as well, like Bluetooth speaker, USB storage, flashlight, those kind of things, which we, you know, some of which we really have, have considered thought about, but, but then there’s the wild ones as well.

Abate: Yeah, yeah. You know, I, I deal with a lot of hardware and every, uh, year I get for Christmas, uh, a bunch of little multi tools and I can just imagine somebody, you know, requesting, uh, a multi-tool c work arm,

Joel: Yeah.

Abate: like

Joel: Yes. I think for, for, for us, like I, if there’s, there’s probably certain things where it’s, it’s supposed to be a general purpose, um, tool for, for activities of daily living. So it’s not supposed to serve one specific utility. And there is a, there are a lot of prosthetic limbs that are. Designed to serve one specific utility, like you can get attachments for playing particular sports, for example. So, um, so I think that’s where for us, we, we kind of, we decided to focus to f to, to focus on, on trying to, to do that.

Abate: Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. Um, so what is the target customer like then?

Joel: So we’ve got, uh, we’ve got wide range of, of, of, of different kind of demographic in terms of terms of the patient base. Um, so, so the hero, so originally we, one of the, one of the challenges we wanted to, to solve was that there weren’t, when we launched the hero arm, any bionic hands, small enough to fit children at all. And we were getting a lot of requests from, from parents of children saying, we want something for our, for our child. So we wanted to make something that was small and, uh, the, and then we, the smallest we could go with the, with the functionality was about the right size for an eight year old. So that’s what we managed to do.

And then that was obviously a, the, the hero one was the only product available for those people. So that became our initial target market right at the very beginning. But, but since then, , it’s shifted, and now, now it’s, um, they’re far more adult hero arm users than children. So it really varies and it, it’s, there are people that have had a congenital limb difference grown up that way, and have really learnt to do all of the things that they need to do day to day.

And for them, often the benefit of the hero is predominantly psychological. And the, the, and, uh, it, it’s, it’s, it’s a bit, it’s a bit different for them. And then there’s other people where they’ve lost, maybe they’ve lost a limb later on in life, and the benefit is predominantly functional and that’s why they want it, and that’s what they wanna be able to do.

Things that they haven’t been able to adapt to, to, to pick back up after their limb loss. So it’s really, it is really wide rang.

Abate: Mm-hmm. . Yeah. Yeah. I can definitely see. So, you know, back in, uh, 2015, um, I was actually doing my, my master’s degree in robotics in the Bristol Robotics Lab. Um, so yeah, yeah. And, uh,

Joel: what year?

Abate: uh, 2015.

Joel: So we were there. We were there together.

Abate: Yeah, we were there together. So I remember being in there, I had an internship in something completely different. Um, and just a lot of the people in that lab, there’s this like energy around, you know, what you guys were building. It was very new back then. Um, so yeah, I mean, you know, it, it, it’s been fun experience.

Um, I’m seeing you guys from that point in the lab to, you know, where you’re, where you’re at now. Um, you guys are currently raising money. Um, how’s the, how’s the journey been like as a, as a company going from working in this shared, uh, robotics slab in, uh, in the southwest of England and then, um, going to where you are now?

Joel: Well, yeah, it’s been a, it is been a. Wild journey, lots of challenges to, to overcome, um, sort of year after year and, and changing each time as we, as we get through each, each stage of, initially it was very technical product development challenges and then it became very regulatory and, and then more recently it became more commercial.

So it’s, it’s kind of shapes along, along the journey. Um, but of course, yeah, it does. Take a lot of investment. So what we’ve, what we’ve, the point that we’ve got to now is we’ve really established the business quite well. We’ve established the brand, we’ve brought our first product to market, and we, we are incredibly proud of the, of the progress that we’ve made and the impact that we’ve made through [00:25:00] doing that. But we always want more. So the, the next thing is we want to. Increase the impact by bringing the hero arm to new countries and then also to, to branch out into other product segments. So it’s, we’re looking, we continue to focus on upper limb prosthetics, but of course, the hero arm’s only for people with a transradial limb difference below elbow, but above wrist.

And so there’s, there’s opportunity to, to help people with other kinds of upper limb differences as well. And we’d like to be able to do that. So that’s what we’re raising money for right now, is that, uh, that growth and. Um, so we’ve, we’re, we’re just about to launch a funding route, fundraising campaign on Crowdcube, um, to, to be able to do.

Abate: Yeah. Yeah. So what, what countries are you looking to go into? What’s the strategy behind choosing, uh, which one?

Joel: It is the, so the strategy behind choosing it would be to look at the, so we look at the, look at, look at a market from the, the, the numbers of, uh, people is, is typically quite for most countries. It, it can be, it can be a percentage of population. So it’s quite tied to the population. And then the, the, the specific variances to that would be like Ukraine right now, for example, there’s, there’s a, there’s a disproportionately high number, amount of limb loss.

Um, but, uh, in terms of, but the, the other thing that we look at is, is the, The delivery mechanism. So where, how, how well equipped the funding landscape is. That’s major, major factor is like, can, is there governmental funding available for these types of products? And how is it, how does that work? Um,

Abate: when you say government, sorry, when you say governmental funding, do you mean? Uh, so like something like Medicare where it can like fund part of the purchase so that the customer doesn’t have to bear the burden of the entire,

Joel: Yep. Exactly. Yeah. So, so, but the, the US is probably one of the most complicated in many ways. Um, but there, there are certain European countries that are really. That have really good funding availability for prosthetic products. And then you’ve got, uh, UK for example, where the NHS has a really, really great funding pathway for certain products and certain, um, certain, certain things.

But for Multigrid Bionic hands until recently, they, they just weren’t, they weren’t offered, they weren’t funded at. Uh, and so, and then even recently they’ve, they, they’ve, they’ve changed that to that ruling. So they will be funded, but it remains to be seen how, how sort of, um, the criteria is applied to, to actually to, to get people fitted.

So how long it takes and, and then how that process plays out. So, so that’s what one of the big things that we look at and, um, and then finally it would be, uh, well, not necessarily in this order, but the other thing would be regulatory. So for us, we’ve got the F D A registration and the CE mark. So any countries that are using the CE mark, it’s, it’s much easier from a regulatory standpoint to enter them.

Abate: Hmm hmm. Yeah. And you said also that you were, um, looking to branch into a couple of the other, um, things that you can do where with upper limb. Um, what, what would be some of those other things?

Joel: Yeah, so we were trying not, not be too prescriptive around products right now because we, we we’re just gonna try and start from really establishing the user requirements. Um, but so I, so I can talk more probably about the market segments that we are looking at rather than, What the product is gonna end up looking like.

Abate: Mm-hmm.

Joel: and those would be, so we can, we can, so we’ll be looking at people with partial hand limb loss, for example. Um, single digit finger limb loss as well. So we, and we get lot of inbound interest from, from these, from, from people who have seen the hero arm and love it and inquire as to whether we have something that might work for them. And then we have to say no in, in a lot of cases because, because the limitations, clinical limitations, the here on. So we wanna, we wanna be able to make products that, that, that, that help those people. So that’s, that’s, that’s kinda the way that we, the way that we’re looking at. So that’s one area is, uh, is different types, types of, of, of, uh, limb differences from, from the wrist down.

And we also we’re also looking at being able to offer a solution. That works for above elbow amputees. Um, and then little bit further into the future, we’re starting to look at whether they’re, like, there’s a huge, huge, huge population of people who still have an arm but have limited mobility or have paralysis. [00:30:00] And so that’s a, that’s a really, really interesting segment. We’ve had loads of inbound interest from, from people like that as well. And we know it’s a huge market, but it’s a little bit earlier. There’s the, the, the funding is often less established. The funding pathways are often less established. And then from a product standpoint as well, clinically things are a, a little bit less established as well.

So it’s earlier on in, in the, in the, in the stage of developments. Um, and, uh, and what, what we might end up making. But that’s something that we are really, really excited about for longer term growth.

Abate: Mm-hmm. . Yeah. And you guys are currently raising on Crowdcube, um, so, uh, people like listeners as well. Um, anybody can go on, go on to this, uh, a link and just invest in your company. Is that the idea?

Joel: That’s right. Yeah. So people, as long as they’re not in the USA or Japan or Canada, um, uh, they, they will be, they will be able to, to check it out and see if it’s of interest. But, uh, that’s something that we’re really excited about is with this opportunity, um, This will be the first time that, that people can buy shares in open Bionics.

And that’s, uh, we’ve had, again, something that people have asked for, like pretty much ever since we started the company and we’ve done these private rounds of investment, but we’ve never done anything before that would, would be, um, available to the general public. So we, we we’re really excited for that.

Abate: Awesome. Yeah, we’ll share the link in the, in the notes. Thank you for coming on here today, Joel.

Joel: You’re so welcome. Thank you very much for having me.


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Abate De Mey Podcast Leader and Robotics Founder
Abate De Mey Podcast Leader and Robotics Founder

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In the latest episode of the Robot Talk podcast, Claire chatted to Mario Di Castro from CERN all about robotic inspection and maintenance in hazardous environments.
24 May 2024, by

Congratulations to the #ICRA2024 best paper winners

The winners and finalists in the different categories have been announced.
20 May 2024, by

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