October 4, 2023

Natallie Rocha | San Diego Union-Tribune

In June, Jonah Villamil hopped on a surfboard with two legs for the primary time in three years. He was testing the water with a brand new, 3-D-printed prosthetic leg.

Jonah calls it his “DNA leg” due to its twisty construction.

“There’s a bunch of traces on it that (the water will) simply undergo,” mentioned the 12-year-old from Chula Vista. “Additionally, it wasn’t like weighing me down a lot.”

It’s not the primary time he’s tried a prosthetic leg. However it was the primary time he’s performed within the ocean with a leg made by Limber Prosthetics and Orthotics, a startup out of UC San Diego that’s gaining monetary backing.

San Diego, CA – June 16: Joshua Pelz (r), CEO LIMBER Prosthetics and Robotics demonstrates using their smartphone app used to 3-D scan Jonah’s limb, to design his 3-D printed prosthetic limbs. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune) 

The corporate’s below-the-knee prosthetics are made utilizing an iPhone app that scans the affected person’s limbs. Then, that knowledge is shipped to a 3-D printer the place Limber can produce a exact, custom-made prosthetic leg quicker than conventional strategies.

“I feel one of many the reason why I fell in love with this particular mission is there’s a extremely tangible, direct influence — that’s generally tough to get with different industries,” mentioned Joshua Pelz, co-founder and CEO of Limber. “You may work in one other trade and also you may influence a whole lot of lives. However it is probably not as tangible as giving somebody a tool that enables them to get again on their ft and get again to their life.”

The concept for the Limber UniLeg was born within the spring of 2019 in a classroom at UCSD. The task was to make use of know-how within the lab, similar to digital design applications and 3-D printing, to unravel a world drawback.

Roughly 40 million individuals in creating international locations reside as amputees and solely 5 p.c have entry to prosthetic care, in response to the World Well being Group. A part of the problem is that conventional prosthetic limbs are crafted by hand, so the price and time required for care is inaccessible to lots of people.

Pelz was working towards his doctorate in engineering, when he met his Limber co-founders Luca De Vivo Nicoloso and Herb Barrack. De Vivo Nicoloso was additionally a doctoral scholar in engineering whereas Barrack, a licensed prosthetist and orthotist with practically twenty years of expertise, was serving to college students as an issue skilled.

They constructed the primary Limber UniLeg prototype alongside their professor, utilizing a mixture of supplies which might be stronger than on a regular basis plastic, however permit the leg to keep up various ranges of stiffness and suppleness.

The swirled, single-body design of the Limber leg doesn’t simply look cool, nevertheless it was modeled after the light-weight sturdiness of a chollas cactus. De Vivo Nicoloso studied the plant’s construction as a part of his doctoral engineering thesis and utilized its capacity to face up to excessive desert winds to the Limber UniLeg.

Not like a traditional prosthetic limb, which is made with a number of elements and tons of little metallic screws, the Limber UniLeg is one piece.

Barrack, who serves as Limber’s chief medical officer, has been making common journeys to Ensenada, Mexico, for greater than 20 years to assist amputees who can’t afford prosthetic care. A few years in the past, the Limber founders introduced their prototype on one among these journeys and managed to ship prosthetic limbs to the neighborhood.

For Pelz and De Vivo Nicoloso, the journeys to Ensenada solidified their want to show this class mission right into a sustainable enterprise that makes prosthetics extra accessible.

“It was staring us in our eye after we fitted our first sufferers exterior the classroom that we realized that ‘wow, if we actually can do that at scale, we can assist tens of millions of individuals,’” mentioned De Vivo Nicoloso, who serves as Limber’s chief monetary officer.

Two men in suits pose with 3-D printed prosthetic legs.
San Diego, CA – June 16: Herb Barrack (l), chief medical officer and licensed prothesis and orthotist and Joshua Pelz (r), CEO LIMBER Prosthetics and Robotics subsequent to their two 3-D printers used to fabricate the prosthetic limbs t the LIMBER Prosthetics lab on UC San Diego campus on Friday, June 16, 2023 in San Diego, CA. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune) 

Limber formally launched in 2020.

Like so many inventions all through historical past — from the Etch A Sketch to the Dyson vacuum — the corporate began in somebody’s storage. The primary couple of Limber 3-D printers had been in-built Pelz’s storage.

“It’s simply been form of grinding, pedal to the ground, going as onerous as we will, engaged on weekends to carry this factor into actuality as a result of it must be improved,” Pelz mentioned. “It’s a world disaster and we’ve been capable of see it firsthand. And we’re very enthusiastic about with the ability to make a distinction.”

The grinding has paid off.

Remarkably, Limber is garnering funding in a high-interest-rate surroundings the place enterprise capital isn’t flowing into startups prefer it was earlier within the pandemic.

In Might, Limber took dwelling the highest prize from the San Diego Angel Convention, an annual gathering of lots of of early stage firms and traders from throughout the nation. That first-place title additionally got here with a $263,000 funding that has continued to develop.

Most lately, UC San Diego invested $250,000 in Limber. To this point, Limber has raised roughly $1.2 million.

The cash will assist Limber put money into constructing extra 3-D printers to extend its capability and transfer into a much bigger lab area off-campus. It can additionally finance scientific trials for the machine, submitting an software to the FDA and its final objective of launching a business product subsequent yr.

Limber at present has three printers and plans to construct 5 extra by the top of this yr. Pelz mentioned the objective for 2024 is to promote 200 legs in the US. They’re nonetheless determining a plan for worldwide growth.

To this point, Pelz mentioned Limber has fitted 36 sufferers who’ve a variety of exercise ranges and spanning ages 3 to 75 years previous.

The necessity to construct up extra capability turned even clearer final summer season after Limber acquired a ton of media consideration for bringing 5 prosthetic limbs to Ukrainian troopers combating within the struggle towards Russia. Whereas the founders proceed their journeys to Mexico and envision serving to individuals in creating international locations with their merchandise, the corporate’s essential focus proper now could be on constructing a sustainable enterprise mannequin in the US.

“This isn’t just for individuals in want,” De Vivo Nicoloso mentioned. He added that the machine isn’t a “low-cost different” to conventional prosthetics, however simply one other means to enhance the standard of life for sufferers and the way clinicians make prosthetics.

Limber isn’t a direct, patient-facing enterprise. As an alternative, the corporate presents its digital design and manufacturing assist to clinics that fabricate prosthetics. Limber continues to be creating its community of licensed clinics and has but to find out a value for the UniLeg and whether or not it will likely be coated by insurance coverage partially or fully.

It’s not an ideal, one-size-fits-all resolution for anybody with a prosthetic limb, mentioned Jesus Mendoza, an area licensed prosthetist and orthotist, who referred Jonah to Limber. Mendoza is a longtime pal of Barrack, one of many Limber founders, and he famous the advantages of the design for sure use circumstances.

For somebody like Jonah — who wanted his left leg amputated in 2020 after a sudden an infection put him within the hospital — it’s given him an alternative choice to keep up his energetic way of life.

Jonah’s love of sports activities, like wrestling, basketball and jiu-jitsu, is what motivated him to embrace being energetic with a prosthetic limb. He’d been asking Mendoza for a “water leg” as a result of he likes to surf and go on hikes along with his household.

A boy with a prosthetic limb wipes out while surfing.
San Diego, CA – June 22: Jonah Villamil, carrying his 3-D printed prosthetic limb makes his first try at standing on his board within the surf with Joshua Pelz, CEO LIMBER Prosthetics and Robotics at La Jolla Shores on Thursday, June 22, 2023 in San Diego, CA. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune) 

“Jonah, I simply knew that he’s a champion so no matter we did, he was going to make it higher,” mentioned Mendoza, whose household enterprise ABI P&O has been serving to individuals who want prosthetic limbs for practically 30 years.

Mendoza works with a whole lot of pediatric sufferers like Jonah and identified a good thing about the Limber system. Clinicians must make frequent changes to prosthetics, particularly for teenagers who’re continuously rising and altering. Mendoza mentioned he likes that he can take exact measurements with the Limber know-how and observe any modifications digitally, which additionally helps him justify these frequent modifications with medical suppliers and insurance coverage.