Industry Watch

Dr. Naidu and a student work with the revised idea, now creating components using an open source 3D printer. Photo by Brett Groehler

The original hand developed by Dr. D. Subbaram Naidu

Reaching For Dollars

When the military dropped its funding for a prosthetic hand, the inventor never stopped seeking ways to keep the project alive

By Kevyn Burger

It looks like a prop from a movie set in the future — a five fingered mechanical hand, driven by sensors.

It’s not science fiction; it’s in development in a Minnesota lab.

But despite the obvious potential for the replacement appendage, its creator remains stymied in his efforts to get the funding to complete his work and bring the prosthetic to the masses.  

“I’ve looked in a lot of corners,” says Dr. D. Subbaram Naidu, a distinguished professor at the University of Minnesota – Duluth. “I’m hoping to connect with a Minnesota-based industry that would be interested in funding the next phase.”

Naidu arrived at UMD’s Swenson College of Science and Engineering in 2014. He’d previously spent five years developing the robotic hand while on the faculty at Idaho State University; Naidu was the device’s principal investigator and led an interdisciplinary team of seven colleagues, funded with $2.25 million from the U. S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC).

In 2014, a report issued by the Congressional Research Service estimated that 1,558 American military personnel stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered a major limb amputation. While modern soldiers are outfitted in body armor that shields vital organs, it doesn’t protect arms and legs from traumatic and disabling injuries caused by improvised explosive devices.

When the military funds research to rehabilitate its personnel, the resulting breakthroughs also benefit civilians who’ve lost limbs in accidents or due to birth defects.

The USAMRMC money that was funding Naidu’s work at Idaho State unexpectedly dried up.

“We built it and tested it, but the funding was cut for the final phase of the project — commercializing it,” he said.

At UMD, Naidu holds the Minnesota Power Jack Rowe endowed chair in electrical engineering.

“Meeting students here, we talked about making an artificial hand that would be affordable. My students came up with the idea of fabricating the hand with a 3D printer.”

The university system was so excited about the breakthrough that it featured Dr. Naidu’s five-fingered design as part of a billboard campaign promoting engineering triumphs.

Although the university operates multiple programs to bring faculty inventions to market, connecting with money is complicated, even for a concept with such clear promise.

“The pot of money is smaller and tougher to access over the last 10 years,” says Kevin Nickels, technology marketing manager with the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization.

The university’s 2015 State of Research report, presented to the Board of Regents, noted a stingy 1.8% increase in sponsored research awards over the previous fiscal year’s funding.

Raising private capital for medical devices comes with distinct challenges. Medical devices must not only forge an arduous path to FDA approval, Nickels explains, but in today’s environment, they must also win over the health insurers who would be asked to pay for them.

“The device would have to have an incredibly tight product/market fit,” he says.

“Right now, we see that a lot of the private money has moved to the Internet of Things, which has fewer regulatory and reimbursement barriers,” he adds. “Industry can get those inventions in the hands of consumers and then make their money back more quickly.”

Futurist Cecily Sommers agrees that the market can be too impatient for products demanding a long research path. 

“Sometimes the technology gets ahead of the money,” says the global trends analyst, author of Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn’t and What’s Next.

“A lot of the technology we use today was invented twenty or thirty years ago; there can be a long adoption curve to usability that scales. Success is about timing, not just money. It’s tough because the U.S. economy is built for short-term returns,” she says.

Naidu’s research examines how to link signals from the brain to sensors in the forearm, then process that with motors to drive the attached digits. He believes using 3D printing technology could ultimately make the sophisticated option cost-effective for amputees.

“This research has all been done with public money, taxpayer money. The knowledge has to go back to society, to give to others,” he says.
Born near Tirupati, India, to parents who were subsistence farmers and barely literate, Naidu’s family recognized his deep passion for mathematics and sent him away to school at age 12.

He continued his education in India, earning advanced degrees before emigrating to the U.S. in 1985 to work on a Mars mission for NASA’s Langley Research Center, and he went on to a prolific academic career.

The accomplished professor is optimistic about ultimately locating the funding that has so far eluded his grasp. He will showcase the hand in a TEDx talk that he’s scheduled to deliver on August 12 in Minneapolis. He hopes that exposure will bring the invention before the masses.

“Maybe someone will see it and get excited,” he says.

Now in his mid-70s, Naidu plans to continue his experiments on the prosthetic to bring its functions as close to human hands as possible. “I believe in 50 years, we’ll have largely eliminated disabilities,” he says.

“I work twelve hours a day; I don’t want to retire. I will die in the lab,” he says. “I’ll keep pushing this research for others to build on. Someday my ideas and work will speak for me. Someone else will take it from there.”