Illinois Prosthetics aims to help developing countries

Like any other college student seeking to gain some real world working experience, Jonathan Naber took up a summer internship in between his freshman and sophomore year. However, Naber was disappointed with his computer research job.

“I felt like it wasn’t fulfilling because I really wasn’t helping anyone directly with what I was doing,” Naber, a junior in Engineering, said.

Instead of simply waiting for the long days to go by, Naber began hatching a plan – one that would combine a subject close to his heart with a lifelong aspiration to be an inventor.

Since forming the Illinois Prosthetics Team (IPT) a year and a half ago, Naber and the IPT team have been working hard to develop affordable prosthetic arms for amputees in developing countries. Most recently, Naber became the recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize, winning $30,000 for IPT’s medical and technological development efforts.

As a child, Naber watched his grandmother live her life with a severe handicap after suffering from a car accident. Adding on to his high school experience from working with a student with muscular dystrophy disease — a genetic disorder that weakens the muscles that help the body move — Naber grew up with a big heart for people with disabilities.

“I decided I wanted to do some type of rehabilitation technology and started doing some research,” Naber said.

When Naber found out that 80 percent of the amputees in the world lived in developing countries, he decided to build prosthetic devices that would be easily accessible for citizens in third-world countries.

“There’s a huge niche that needs to filled that’s not being met,” Naber said.

Citing various causes for the amputee’s conditions, including land mines, wars, diseases, natural disasters and domestic violence, Naber said these victims all had one thing in common.

“Their livelihood depends on having all four of their limbs,” Naber said.

Together with his team of five engineers, the IPT has developed five different prototypes of prosthetic arms so far.

“With every step of the process, every prototype, we step back and ask ourselves is this what a person in a developing country needs and wants,” Naber said. “A lot of the times we have to say no and have had to rework the designs.”

Testing with different materials for each prototype, including hard plastic, alloys and recycled goods, Naber said the fifth model may be their best one yet.

Aside from being low-cost, the newest prototype is adaptable to the amputee’s arm length and tightness, and a lot more breathable compared to the current prosthetics available in the market.

Despite the positive reviews, the team hopes to develop four more models before their summer trip to the Range of Motion Project (ROMP) prosthetics clinic in Guatemala – where they plan to conduct field-tests and collect data from patients.

For alumni David Krupa, the CEO and Director of ROMP, the collaboration between ROMP and IPT is a reminder of the resources available to students at his Alma mater.

“They have taken the initiative to develop prostheses that could potentially improve the lives of countless individuals around the globe,” Krupa said. “I’ve used a prosthetic leg since I was one and a half years old but while I was at the U of I, I never even considered prosthetics as a possible career path.”

As Naber and the rest of the IPT members continue to develop more models, the biggest challenge remains juggling their prosthetics work with academics.

“There’s two pieces to my life, there’s being a good engineering student and then there’s being a good businessman,” Naber said. “I’ve learned to manage my time well, and use a lot of Post-it Notes.”

Other IPT members like Ehsan Noursalehi, a junior in Engineering agreed that it was all about being efficient with time.

“What most people don’t realize about college life is that you have lots of free time,” Noursalehi said. “My first two semesters I spent this time playing video games. My third semester I used to start a freelance business. I hope to apply what I learned from running my own business to, turning IPT into a successful startup.”

Noursalehi also attributed Naber’s strong leadership skills to the group’s efficiency.

“Jon does an amazing job setting up ambitious goals and directing the right kind of energy to reach those goals,” Noursalhei said.

And overall, the group only has one goal in mind.

“What we really want to aim to do with the prosthetic arms is to re-enable people to live their normal lives,” Naber said.