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Engineering Student’s BioTech Startup Provides Low-Cost Prosthetics

Friday, March 03, 2017

LAWRENCE — It all started with a concussion.

When Mason Wilde was in high school — a few years before he came to the University of Kansas as a mechanical engineering major — he suffered a head injury during a football game. During his recuperation, a family friend from his hometown of Louisburg approached and asked for help on a project: Could Wilde help build a prosthetic hand for her 9-year-old son?

"A family friend approached us and said, 'We've been trying to get this project done. We've found this prosthetic hand design, but we don't know how to go about building it. People want a lot of money to build it,’" Wilde, now a sophomore, said recently.

A mechanical project might sound like a big task while recovering from a brain injury, but Wilde welcomed it as a distraction. "It was a nice thing I could look at for 10, 20 minutes at a time without stressing my brain too much,” he said.

The result — a $60 mechanical hand built for a family friend, young Matthew Shields — helped set Wilde on the path he’s on today: He started his own company to help create low-cost prosthetics using 3D printers, has a speaking slot Sunday, March 5, at the TedX UMKC conference and is scheduled to intern for Google this summer.

And all that’s built around his regular schedule of classes, research and other activities as a student and SELF Fellow in KU’s School of Engineering.

"My concussion specialist loved that I was making the best of a bad situation,” Wilde said, “doing something good."

Attention, Direction 

Even before building the prosthetic hand, Wilde liked working on machines and gadgets, working with his dad on vehicles during their spare time.

"I've always been a bit of a tinkerer,” he said. In fact, Wilde had already put that talent to use for Matthew Shields’ family in the past — their moms worked together — helping them with video games and computer problems and other home tech issues.

This was a different kind of project, however. Shields, his young friend, was born without fingers on his right hand. Building the prosthetic, Wilde said, was relatively easy: There were “open source” plans available online. But Shields’ mother needed help translating that information into a finished product.

After studying the plans and modifying them for Shields’ hand, Wilde made two stops: The Johnson County library, which had a 3D printer where he could make the prosthetic’s components, and a hardware store for a few additional pieces to put it all together.

The result worked beautifully.

“It was a pretty involved thing, but we got the hand done. He can move it, grab things with it,” Wilde said. “It was a pretty rapid progression from getting the design done to getting it built to him using it."

One other thing happened as a result of Wilde’s project: attention, and lots of it. There were stories in the local paper and on television, then ultimately in national outlets like People and Gizmodo. Donations followed, and Wilde formed Dextella Company, a nonprofit company that manufactures other robotic hands, to order. Wilde provides the links to design files on the company’s website.

"I've been very clear you don't need me, but if you want me to do it, I'm there,” he said. "I actually have a lot more people asking me for help, information to help them, rather than making hands. I see that as a good thing."

Moving Ahead

With so much “hands-on” experience, Wilde was looking for more opportunities to make real contributions when choosing where to attend college.

“I grew up bleeding crimson and blue,” but it was the research opportunities in the School of Engineering, he said, that brought him to KU. 
"So far my education is working out beautifully for me. I said I wanted to do research, they said, 'How soon?' A lot of universities I was looking at could not offer that resource or opportunity.” 

He’s spent his time at KU deeply involved in research — first in bioengineering, then under Dongkyu Choi, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, working on “cognitive architecture” problems in artificial intelligence.

"That's probably the biggest reason I chose KU. They wanted to help me do what I wanted to do," Wilde said.

Wilde will continue his computer work this summer when he interns at Google.

"That should be a great experience,” he said. “Getting that taste of industry, and looking ahead to the future, will be fantastic."

Before that, he’ll speak at the TedX event this weekend at UMKC. He’ll speak, from experience, on "using technology and innovation to better your community."

"We all have the resources to do these kinds of things, but it's not always clear," Wilde said, pointing out that many people may still be unaware of the 3D printer at his local library. “It’s relatively new.”

All these activities — the company, the research, the speaking engagements — take place on top of the fact that Wilde, after all, is still an undergrad.

"It takes up a good amount of my time, all combined,” he said.

He’s not sure what life holds after graduation, but he believes research will be part of it. "I think it helps benefit the world and society,” Wilde said.

And KU, he said, is an integral part of his journey.

"KU has done a fantastic job,” he said, “of preparing me for the work world and the research world."

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
44 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
5th nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets: Colleges," Military Times