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Lending a bionic hand

Two students transformed their university project into a successful business that creates prosthetic arms

By Nabil Tahir
PUBLISHED May 23, 2021
KARACHI:

An amputated arm is one of the leading disabilities of the world, and around 90 per cent of the world disability is in South East Asia. The World Health Organisation estimates that 15 per cent (1 billion) of the world's population has a disability and in Southeast Asia, that equals almost 90 million people.

Two university students Anas Niaz and Ovais Hussain Qureshi, during their final project, came up with the idea to tackle this situation in the South Asian region, especially in Pakistan where there was an unavailability of high-quality prosthetic limbs with the latest technology that is similar to the world's top brain-controlled prosthetic limbs, the artificial limb.

Soon they were able to launch 'Bioniks,' a Karachi-based startup that provides brain-controlled prosthetic arms for those who lost their hands in an accident and for those kids who have amputated arms.

For their first such initiative, they have created a personalised prosthetic arm for five-year-old Mir Bayyan Baloch in 2016. The young boy, a fan of Iron Man, wanted his arm to look similar to the comic super hero’s. Anas and Ovais worked on it with the help of doctor’s consultations and created the arm over a course of three months. Since then they have created 85 such prosthetic limbs for people in Pakistan.

“This was our final year project. Once it was done, we decided to take this a step furhter and start bringing in more innovations. That was the time when we were contacted by Bayyan's father and his story moved us, so we decided to help him,” said CEO of Bioniks Anas Niaz, who is a mechatronics engineer. “When he first came to us, we asked him about his favourite superhero, and he told us it was Iron Man. So we tried to create something similar along with making the arm comfortable for him.”

The first arm that was developed for Bayyan was a mechanical one, and he could move his fingers with the help of his elbow movement and hold things. However, the arm was not built for lifting heavy items. The 3D printed arm is relatively light in comparison to other prosthetics. “It has been designed in such a way that it weighs around 350 to 400 grams," said Niaz, adding that it is also hollow from inside, making it lighter and more accessible for children to wear.

“In most countries, you have to wear harness bionic arms because of its weight. But in Pakistan, we have designed Bionik arm which does not require a harness due to its lightweight,” he said.

Anas and Ovais kept on working to evolve the arm to make it one of the best in the world. They were invited to top tech exhibitions where they witnessed the latest technology being used worldwide and the high cost of prosthetic arms. “We got to know about the high cost of the prosthetic arms around the world, which cost around $10,000 to $15,000. We realised how much a solution for the amputated arm costs and which are not even available locally in the South Asian and Middle East region where the rate of disability is highest," said Niaz.

After two years of research and hard work, they successfully developed a brain-controlled prosthetic arm similar to the world's top prosthetic arms. “Sensors are placed on the nerves where the brain sends signals for the hand movement, and then the sensors give signals to the arm motors providing a precise control of the arm and fingers,” explained Niaz, adding that their arm requires no surgery and is created within seven days.

Niaz also informed me that the new designs are more compact. “Earlier, the battery was outside the arm in which you had to put the battery in your pocket. Now the battery is inside the Bionic arm and can be charged with a power bank. Bioniks is also working on creating the world’s most affordable and durable bionic arm, which will weigh only 250gm, making it the world’s lightest weight bionic arm," he said.

Superhero

Hammad Hamid is another kid in Islamabad who was born with congenital amputation. His father, who was not unprepared for the condition, made every effort to provide Hammad with a prosthetic arm. As Hammad was growing, the need for the arm was increasing, and Hamid searched locally and internationally to give his child a prosthetic arm. “I searched everywhere and finally discovered Bioniks. I contacted them, and they were able to explain how they will be developing the arm through which Hammad will be able to live his life as closely possible to any other child,” said Hamid to The Express Tribune.

In Hammad's case, the whole process took around 14 days, including doctor's visits, arms measurement designing, and production with sensor adjustment. Hammad also wanted his arm to have a super hero theme and in his case the here was superman. “This arm has a very innovative quality. It has a power bank to charge the arm, so it's completely portable,” said Hamid. “The time when I saw Hammad walking in, in his 'Superman themed' prosthetic arm holding his cape - that was the best moment of my life,” said Hamid.

In efforts for improved prosthetic solutions, the Karachi-based startup recently launched a new range of advanced products, which they claim, were created after intense research and with the help of surgical equipment and will give the people a choice for their prosthetic arm. They soon launched Zindagi 2.0, which is durable and a more realistic Black X, which is lightweight and functional.

Zindagi 2.0

“We have recently launched 'Zindagi 2.0' - a skin-colour based arm. Through research, we learned that people also prefer skin-coloured arms so we developed Zindagi 2.0, which is a skin-coloured prosthetic arm and with its help, people can even ride a bike and do daily work easily," said Niaz adding that they are trying to make it the cheapest bionic arm.

Niaz, while explaining its durability, said that this arm was developed for war victim zones. "We thought to make it rigid so that it can be used in every scenario and is low maintenance. So this arm can lift heavyweight, has a good grip and is more controlled,” he said.

Black X

The third variant of the prosthetic arm that Bioniks makes is Black X. This arm is black in colour, a bit more stylish and functional. Black X helped a Lahore-based professor and a guitarist go back to everyday life, which was changed after losing his arm due to an electric shock. Muaaz Zahid was staying in a house located in Faisalabad in July 2020. Just before his project meeting, his right hand accidentally touched a high-tension wire, sending 11,000 watts of electricity surging through his armover a course of mere four or five seconds, driving the chemical count in his body to critical levels.

Due to Covid-19, no hospital was ready to take his case. “It was Saturday night, and surgeons weren't available there. It took me around 24 hours to reach Lahore after visiting five hospitals in Faisalabad. Doctors said the only way to save my life was to amputate my arm below the elbow," recalls the 26-year-old engineer and teacher.

Many of his friends and people who knew him believed Zahid would ever play the guitar again. But thanks to Bioniks just after three months of the accident that nearly cost him his life, Zahid, who teaches at the Lahore Institute of Management Sciences (LUMS), was able to play his first chord after Bioniks fitted him with a bionic arm and a customised stroker for guitar strings.

“Although I lost my arm, I was hopeful that I was alive and healthy. My legs were moving, my eyes were fine and my brain was working fine,” he said The Express Tribune. “People were not sure if I would be able to play the guitar again but I was sure that I would play again one day.”

“Bioniks first developed a simple Black X prosthetic arm for me, which was really helpful as I was able to do everything that I was doing with the real arm. Then I shared with them that I was playing the guitar with it, so they provided a more permanent solution,” he said.

“Zahid is an excellent example of courage and motivation," said Niaz. “Recovering within three months of amputation followed by adoption of Bioniks prosthesis is marvellous. Seeing him moving his fingers right just from the very next second after popping his arm into the socket and looking at his smile motivates us more.”

Cost of an arm

Currently, a bionic arm costs around Rs 350,000, the same kind of bionic arm available in the international market at the cost of 10,000 USD. “We have made it at a meagre cost, and the quality and functionality is equal or better than some of the top bionic arms in countries like the USA and Germany,” he said.

Making it more accessible for the people in Pakistan, Niaz said they are working with many companies who are sponsoring their arms under their CSR projects. “This helps us in providing an arm to the ones who cannot afford it. Out of 85 arms that we have made, around 15 to 20 are sponsored by companies,” he said.

Next step

Niaz believes that Pakistan has vast potential to become an exporter of this bionic arm. “Pakistan can play a huge role by producing and exporting these bionic arms. The geographical location of the country in the region can be helpful for that and if we can produce these arms in huge quantity it can open up healthcare tourism [in the country],” said Niaz, adding that then people coming here can also visit different cities and this way tourism can also increase. “People looking to be fitted in for prosthetic arms can come to Pakistan, get the Bioniks prosthetic arm, tour the country as well while they’re here and go back with a new life," he said.

He further said that he and Ovais are trying to gain international certifications, get Bioniks registered internationally and then export. “We know that we are making this at a meagre cost and also more user friendly," he said.

He also talked about the company’s local registration. “Our company is currently registered as private limited. Our country doesn't have any registration for social enterprise, if that opens up, then this will open more doors to us internationally,” he said.

Niaz, along with Qureshi, met President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan with the kids who had been fitted in with Bioniks prosthetic arm. The two leaders lauded the prosthetics manufacturers for their significant innovations and services. Anas also revealed that they have requested the government to allow the import of advanced tech machines and provide research grants to them in order for them to continue to make strides in their work.