Vulcan Augmetics - the future is upgradable
Updated: Nov 29
By Peter Bateman, Youth Co:Lab
In the future, technology will turn something as traumatic as the loss of a limb into a minor inconvenience - an upgrade not a bandaid.
That future is closer than you might think, at least that’s what Rafael Masters, co-founder of Vietnamese biotechnology start-up, Vulcan Augmetics, believes.
‘When I was young, I was a big Star Trek fan. They would walk around and they'd have these little computers in their hands, and these computers were basically a flat sheet of paper, and that was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen.
20-years later, I've got three of them in my house. I've got iPads, it's like we saw it in sci-fi. We decided we wanted it. We made it,’ said Rafael.
The Vulcan Augmetics team decided they wanted to make the future of body-mounted technology. Since 2018, the team has been developing affordable, high-functioning and customizable prosthetics and they are starting by targeting what they estimate to be 38 million unserved amputees in the developing world.
‘[There is] 70% unemployment amongst amputees. This means they struggle to support their families. They struggle with social stigma. They lack physical independence and have to rely on family members to help with some daily tasks,’ said Rafael.
‘In developed nations, the majority of amputees have access to some kind of support through government programs, social assistance, or insurance. There is none of that in developing nations, and 95% of amputees there have zero access to care.’
Without access to support systems, amputees in developing nations are forced to fund their own care, and the price point of most prosthetics currently on the market put them well out of reach for the vast majority.
‘There's this really irritating, preconception that people have that all of this able technology has to cost a lot,’ says Rafael.
A high-functioning prosthetic costs upwards of USD$60,000 in a western country - often it’s insurance companies that foot the bill. However, in less wealthy nations with limited access to quality insurance coverage, the high price tags make all but the most basic prosthetics inaccessible for the majority of people with disabilities.
Vulcan Augmetics is rethinking the manufacturing process applying technology that exists today, like 3D printing and injection moulding, to create products at a fraction of the current market costs, while still offering the same amount of usability and function.
They are building both the hardware and the software to create an ecosystem that is ready to adapt to future innovations and a core part of their mission is to make those technological gains accessible to everybody.
‘If you're an amputee, you should be able to go online scan your socket, see a range of options and products that you can buy and know that they will work for you, with upgrades, optimizations and the ability to change colours.’ said Rafael.
‘That should all just work automatically with your product, and there's none of that right now. It's a really, really centralized, opaque, unfriendly kind of industry. We want to make it so that body-mounted technology works on the same kind of business model as an app store.’
As of 2021 Vulcan Augmetics have signed agreements with 17 hospitals and clinics throughout Viet Nam and so far they’ve fitted 32 people with new prosthetics but they are ready to scale up. The goal for the end of 2022 is to be fitting at least 50 users a month in Viet Nam, before expanding to other countries in South East Asia.
As part of Youth Co:Lab, an initiative by UNDP and Citi Foundation, the team has gained more exposure and training to help with their ultimate goal of going global.
‘Youth Co:Lab has already led to pretty significant things, even back in 2019, winning Youth Co:Lab [Viet Nam 2018] has led to many other opportunities, getting nominated for awards and pitching events, said Rafael.
Vulcan Augemetics has since ranked Top 10 in the National Innovation Startup Competition (TECHFEST 2018), became the champion of the Blue Venture Award, and reached the Top 10 of the global final of the Chivas Venture international competition among other accolades.
‘[Youth Co:Lab] also helped connect us to UNDP's mine clearance programme, and we've conducted a pilot programme with them to victims of ordnance with prosthetics.’
The next big challenge for Rafael and the team is changing perceptions of amputees both in the community and beyond.
‘We want our users to see themselves the same way that we see them,’ said Rafael.
‘We see them as tech pioneers, we see them as 38 million amputees in developing nations who are unserved. So for us, that is 38 million walking, talking testbeds for the next generation of wearable technology.’
‘We've got one guy who's a personal trainer and he is the most ripped and shredded guy I've ever seen.
He just happens to be lacking one hand. We designed an attachment to help him go to the gym and like, you look at him and you think: he does not look broken.’
While Vulcan focuses on the developing world - where the need is most apparent - Rafael hopes the technology they are building will transcend boundaries and be a viable, affordable option globally.
‘Success to me is when someone can get into a horrific accident, lose an arm, wake up in hospital, and their first thought is, I'm going to have to take two whole weeks off from work to sort this out. Like when traumatic amputation is an inconvenience. That's the goal,’ said Rafael.
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.