Dr. Aadeel Akhtar is the CEO and Founder of PSYONIC, a company developing advanced bionic limbs that are accessible to all people with limb differences. PSYONIC’s Ability Hand is an FDA-registered bionic hand that is the fastest on the market, robust to impacts, and the first to give users touch feedback. It is also covered by Medicare in the US. The Ability Hand is being used by patients and researchers globally, including Meta and NASA. Dr. Akhtar received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience and M.S. in Electrical & Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2016. He received a B.S. in Biology in 2007 and M.S. in Computer Science in 2008 at Loyola University Chicago. His research is on motor control and sensory feedback for prosthetic limbs, and he has collaborations with the Center for Bionic Medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, the John Rogers Research Group at Northwestern University, and the Range of Motion Project in Guatemala and Ecuador. In 2021, he was named as one of MIT Technology Review’s top 35 Innovators Under 35 and America’s Top 50 Disruptors in Newsweek. Aadeel will be speaking at the upcoming 3D Printing O&P event.
When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?
Aadeel: The first encounter I had with 3D-printing was when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013. We had decided to start building our own prosthetic hands at the time and were looking into how to begin. That was when we had received our first 3D printer (a MakerBot Replicator 2x) and we found open source designs on Instructables to start building the first prototypes of what is now the Ability Hand. We’ve open sourced many of our own designs as well to give back to the community.
What inspired you to start your journey in 3D printing?
Aadeel: When I was 7 years old I met someone missing a limb for the first time. She was my age, living in poverty in Pakistan missing her leg, and using a broken tree branch as a crutch. That inspired me to develop advanced bionic limbs that were more accessible than ever, leveraging 3D printing and other manufacturing techniques to make our bionic limbs.
Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing (bio-printing/bio-fabrication)?
Aadeel: The patients we’ve worked with have always been our biggest inspiration. From the girl I met in Pakistan when I was 7 who was missing her leg, to our first patient Juan Suquillo in Quito, Ecuador who said he felt a part of him had come back when he made a pinch with his left hand for the first time in 35 years using an early prototype of our hand, to US Army Sgt. Garrett Anderson who lost his hand in Iraq in 2005 due to a roadside bomb and told us he could feel his daughter’s hand with our hand because of the touch feedback. I’m also inspired by the students/colleagues/employees I’ve worked with along the way to build every version of the Ability Hand over the last 9 years.
What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions?
Aadeel: We’ve developed a lot of our own manufacturing processes for doing carbon fiber, silicone molding, etc. which has always presented challenges in how we can manufacture our hand at a price point that Medicare would cover while being more robust than most prosthetics hands, water resistant, lightweight, fast, and sensitive to touch. Funding has always been a challenge too, especially in a field with a smaller and often neglected patient population. Fortunately, our bionic hands have also been useful for humanoid robots and manufacturing robot arms. We’re in the middle of an equity crowdfunding round right now at psyonic.io/invest
What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?
Aadeel: Tolerances and resolution (at an affordable price), especially if you’re trying to make things waterproof. Machining gives you more precision than additive manufacturing. It’s possible to do these things with additive manufacturing, it just takes a lot more iteration and testing to get things just right. The potential solution would be improvements in 3D-printing technology that will hopefully come in the near future.
If you are granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be?
Unlimited funding with no strings
More time per day
What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice you heard should they ignore?
Aadeel: If you want to break into this field, start building things on your own in your free time. You will then apply all the theoretical knowledge you’ve learned from your classes in a real world scenario where there are no right answers. Most of the employees we’ve hired built stuff for fun and learned the most that way. As for bad advice to ignore, we’d been told a lot that the what we were trying to build wouldn’t be viable. It’s important to take that advice carefully and understand why they’re saying it. For example, when we started fully 3D-printing our bionic hands, we quickly learned from clinicians and patients that they would destroy them very quickly. But rather than quit, we looked to the soft robotics research that used 3D-printing to make more resilient, compliant joint designs using 3D-printed mods with silicone and rubber. This proved to be very effective while still keeping costs low by using 3D-printing.