In our Q&A series, The Lightbulb, we ask innovators and entrepreneurs to tell us about how they turned their ideas into reality. This week we talk to Mathew Jury, founder of award-winning company Taska Prosthetics which makes state-of-the-art prosthetic hands.
First of all, give us your elevator pitch for Taska Prosthetics.
The Taska product is a water-resistant prosthetic hand that’s designed to be durable. You can wash the dishes with it, walk in the rain with it, and grab certain items with it knowing that it won’t break (the Taska hand is designed to last five years).
What were you doing prior to Taska?
Taska started selling products in November 2017, but development started in my garage back in 2010 so it’s taken a long time to get to market. During that time I was working as an engineer for Kordia (I’ve got electronics, firmware and communications training).
How did the idea for Taska come to you? What was your lightbulb moment?
I had an accident and broke both my arms and my elbow and wrist. I was fortunate not to lose a limb, but the limitations opened my eyes to those who have. That certainly added to my empathy for amputees.
Before the accident, I was looking to change careers to become a prosthetic fitter. But the experience catapulted me into actually inventing a prosthetic hand. I started making hands in the garage [while still working full time], and in the beginning, I had a lot of trouble with hands breaking. When I spoke to international specialists at the time, they said the most expensive product on the market had exactly the same problem. So if you could crack that nut, then you had a product. So that was what gave me the focus to take it from just tinkering to something more.
This industry [that makes these prosthetic hands] is about 12 years old and up until our arrival, extreme fragility was a major problem. The products on the market had really struggled with just basic levels of robustness so that became the main focus of the design.
Not only can [the Taska hand] be submerged into water without any sort of glove, but it’s also got patent-pending designs around three concepts that are integrated with the hand to ensure that it can survive general wear and tear. One of the biggest ones is a shock absorber. It’s basically a silicon block that houses the fingers and absorbs energy whenever it gets knocked.
After deciding to invent your own prosthetic hand, how did you go about bringing that idea to life?
To develop a product like this cost several million dollars and you can’t do it all by yourself. I’m an engineer, but there was a need for a commercial person as well as funding assistance. The company didn’t really start to get serious traction until our first patent application, which was endorsed by professionals over in the US. When people saw that, they realised this could be real and investments started to flow. Later on, a number of specialists helped to get [Taska] across the line.
After about year five, it was no longer just me and my garage anymore. There were a lot of people involved making sure we were getting something together that was real and was going to be a good product.
What can the Taska hand do?
The Taska hand is a multi-articulating hand which means there are motors for each finger. And because it’s got a number of motors that can be individually controlled, there are patterns that the hand knows. There are over 20 patterns in the hand, like the pincer grip that allows you to pick up something like an egg, or a power grip for grabbing a handlebar on a bike. You’ve also got a lateral grip which allows you to shake someone’s hand, hold a pen or hold a cellphone. It’s also a very relaxed grip so it’s one of the more common ones.
How is the hand controlled?
This is where things start to get hard. With Taska, users basically have access to two options to change grip patterns: buttons on the back of the hand, and ‘sensor triggers’.
With sensors, there are two on the arm [that] measure the voltage of the muscle activity when the user flexes their remaining muscles. So one sensor generally measures ‘open’ and the other measures ‘close; when the user flexes their muscles as best they can to replicate opening and closing their hand.
Users can also do morse code signals. They can take a moment, stop, and do a series of twitches. They could be consecutive pulses or holding one of the ‘open’ or ‘close’ positions. There’s actually five of these ‘triggers’ available to these users. That’s how you’d traditionally change grip patterns on a device like a multi-articulating hand, by doing these morse code signals. But it’s slow and unnatural. It’s ‘digital’ and human brains don’t really work very ‘digitally’.
So that’s why we have the more ‘old-fashioned’, practical buttons on the back of the hand. It means users can access a number of grips quickly that they wouldn’t normally be bothered with. So that’s a plus for us.
What’s been your biggest challenge since coming up with the idea for Taska in 2010?
There was quite a long period where it wasn’t clear whether the product would get across the line because a) it was expensive to develop a product like this, and b) there were so many technical challenges to make a hand that was robust.
It probably wasn’t until about mid-2016 that it was clear we were going to make it.
Where does the Taska hand get made?
While software development is done in Wellington, all the mechanical design and assembly work is done in Christchurch which is where we’re based. The product has over 500 parts to it so we can’t make everything in New Zealand, but all the assembly gets done here.
How many customers do you have so far? And is Taska profitable?
There are over 200 users of our product in the USA today. We also sell product into Australia and New Zealand but those are quite small compared to the US. We also just started shipping to Germany to a distributor there in the last month.
At this stage, Taska is profitable.
Finally, what can we expect for the rest of 2019?
We hope to crack 500 hands by the end of the year. We’ve also just released our medium hand, whereas before we only had the large hand. The medium hand allows us to cross over into female amputees and we’ll continue to work and expand our product set over the next 18 months.