|Alt-Bionics founder Ryan Saavedra demonstrates the prosthetic hand his company hopes to market. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report.|
Three years ago, it was just a school project, a proof of concept (it won second place in a university showcase contest), but it grabbed headlines all the way to the UK.
In a senior project at UTSA, Ryan Saavedra and three classmates built a robotic prosthetic hand for less than $700. Their 3D-printed models have made artificial intelligence-enhanced bionic prostheses affordable, dangling turbulent prospects for a multi-billion dollar industry. A reporter asked Saavedra what was next?
"I had no idea," he said, recalling his experience this week. “I was an undergraduate and had no experience building companies or commercializing medical devices.” He had no plans to do so.
Alt-Bionics, the startup founded by Saavedra, is now on a steady path to bringing his concept to market. Negotiations are underway to start its first small clinical trial. The venture attracts attention from local investor groups and business observers well beyond San Antonio's tight-knit robotics scene. Polish manufacturers and South African clinicians say they want to work with Alt-Bionics.
After a successful first round of funding last year, a second round is underway and aims to help the startup build its first commercially available prosthetic device.
He said that the storm of early media coverage gave Saavedra little motivation to take his concept beyond a school project. I asked an Army Ranger, who had multiple amputations on a tour if he could try out a model his team had created. Saavedra agreed, and the veteran quickly programmed his hand to make a rude gesture. Saavedra said the man was thrilled.
"His family asked me, 'What's next?'
Saavedra, 28, has responded to hundreds of inquiries from potential consumers in South America, Russia, India and elsewhere asking how to get his device. Most people are reacting to a TikTok video clip he posted, showing a montage of prosthetic development that currently has over 18 million views on the app. Saavedra said he films almost everything he does.
Advances in high-tech prosthetics have advanced rapidly in recent years, and Saavedra is not alone in its quest for a lower-cost version.
However, these devices are expensive and often not covered by insurance.
According to Mona Patel, founder of the San Antonio Amputee Foundation, these types of electronic prostheses are often cumbersome and prone to technical failure. "Honestly, a lot of the time they end up sitting in the closet."
And startups looking to change this will face a daunting prospect, she warned. will have to do.”
Saavedra does not take this challenge lightly. Part of his pitch is that the bionic hand industry is ripe for disruption, and technological stagnation is driving prices up.
While many devices with similar capabilities typically cost tens of thousands of dollars, Alt-Bionics is aiming for a price tag of around $3,500.
Alt-Bionic hands allow users to control their hands via sensors that detect electrical activity in other muscle groups such as the forearms and shoulders. AI helps guide the needle into different poses, and even more, poses are available by customizing with the connected phone app. Haptic feedback allows users to feel grip and pressure.
While this type of prosthesis often requires expensive repairs by a specialist, Saavedra allows the user to remove and replace each finger individually using readily available replacements. It also aims to make the device easier to repair.
He and the two part-time engineers working under him have also worked to make the needles more durable. Saavedra said that after hearing stories of amputees amputating through drywall shortly after receiving expensive bionic prostheses, that set the bar for the durability of their model.
Some investors have bought Saavedra's pitch.
Last year, Alt-Bionics sought $200,000 in a pre-seed funding round before winning second place in TechFuel, a startup pitch competition funded by Bexar County. We ended up raising $283,000.
Among the contributors are city-related economic development bodies and the Alamo Angels, a local angel investor network connected to the Texas Research and Technology Foundation, whose accelerator Alt-Bionics passed last year.
"They stood out as an investment opportunity," Alamo Angels executive director Juan Sebastian Garzon said in a conversation late last year.
This flood of investor interest took Saavedra by surprise. "I took a deep breath and cried when I wrapped up the round," he said. "I have come a long way."
His road was winding. Nearly a decade ago, Saavedra failed his first year at UTSA due to poor engineering grades. "I thought of myself as a failure," he said.
He enrolled at San Antonio Community College to pursue a career as a firefighter and took an astronomy class, sparking a renewed interest in science and technology. He convinced UTSA to let him re-enroll and eventually graduated in 2020 with a degree in electrical engineering.
Saavedra says his undergraduate experience has made him enjoy the opportunity to speak with electrical engineering students, as he did at UTSA and the University of North Texas.
Last weekend, he set up a booth at a youth science fair at the Witte Museum, where he gave advice to 16-year-olds preparing for college. Don't be afraid to fail.
"Through failure, you may want to do something else," he said. "And your inspiration may come from unexpected places."