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Tunisian startup prints solar-powered bionic hands

China Daily | Updated: 2020-11-04 09:41
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Mohamed Dhaouafi tests a prototype of an artificial hand on Oct 20 at Cure Bionics in Sousse, Tunisia. [BECHIR TAIEB/AFP]

SOUSSE, Tunisia-A Tunisian startup is developing a 3D-printed bionic hand, hoping the affordable and solar-powered prosthetic will help amputees and other disabled people across Africa.

Unlike traditional devices, the artificial hand can be customized for children and young people, who otherwise require an expensive series of re-sized models as they grow up.

The company, Cure Bionics, has plans to develop a video game-like virtual reality system that helps youngsters learn how to use the artificial hand through physical therapy.

Mohamed Dhaouafi, the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Cure Bionics, designed his first prototype while still an engineering student in his home city Sousse.

"One team member had a cousin who was born without a hand and whose parents couldn't afford a prosthesis," he said. "So we decided to design a hand."

Dhaouafi launched his startup in 2017 from his parents' home at a time when many of his classmates chose to move abroad seeking higher salaries and international experience.

"It was like positive revenge," he said. "I wanted to prove I could do it. I also want to leave a legacy, to change people's lives."

Dhaouafi pointed to hurdles in Tunisia, where it can be hard or impossible to order parts via large online sale sites. There is a lack of funding. "We lack visionaries within the state," he said.

But by pooling money raised through sponsored competitions and seed investment from a United States company, he was able to recruit four young engineers.

They are now fine-tuning designs, writing code and testing the artificial hand.

Muscle movement

The device works with sensors attached to the arm that detect muscle movement, and AI-assisted software interprets them to transmit instructions to the digits.

The hand itself has a wrist that can turn sideways, a mechanical thumb and fingers that bend at the joints in response to the electronic impulses.

To teach youngsters how to use them, Cure has been working on a virtual-reality headset that "gamifies" the physical therapy process.

3D printing makes it possible to personalize the prosthesis like a fashion accessory or "a superhero's outfit", said Dhaouafi.

Cure hopes to market its first bionic hands within a few months, first in Tunisia and then elsewhere in Africa, where more than three-quarters of people in need have no access to them, according to the World Health Organization.

"The aim is to be accessible financially but also geographically," said Dhaouafi.

The price of around $2,000 to $3,000 is substantial, but a fraction of the cost of bionic prostheses currently imported from Europe.

The 3D printing of rudimentary prostheses started about a decade ago and is becoming standard.

It is not a magic solution because specialized medical knowhow is still crucial, said Jerry Evans, who heads Nia Technologies, a Canadian noncommercial organization that helps African hospitals manufacture 3D-printed lower limbs.

"3D printing is still in its early stages," he said. "But it is a major game changer in the field of prosthetics and orthotics."

Agencies via Xinhua

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