How can technology have a positive impact on life?

LaChappelle: "Technology should have a positive impact on life"

Easton LaChappelle built a robotic arm when he was 14 and then a prosthetic arm that costs less than $ 500. Portrait of a start-up founder who, despite popular inventions, has people's wellbeing in mind.

When other children had long since stopped playing with Lego, the American Easton LaChappelle was still fascinated by the small plastic building blocks. Not for the sake of gambling. Easton LaChappelle used the stones to build a robotic prosthetic arm with them. He was 14 years old at the time. A good week ago, the now 19-year-old was sitting in the Vienna Hofburg at the Pioneers Festival and admired the red fabric and the paneling on the wall. “It's my first time in Europe,” he said.

It's hard to believe when you know that the young man has already shaken hands with Barack Obama, or that his prosthetic arm has actually shaken Obama’s hand. He did an internship at NASA, waived scholarships from several elite universities, and the military has already knocked on him for his technology.

But the 19-year-old is different. He still lives in a town of 12,000 in Colorado and founded the start-up Unlimited Tomorrow with friends who also come from his small town. Their goal: to develop robotic arm prostheses that are cheaper and work better than any previous one - at a fraction of the price. This is made possible by 3-D printers, with which he forms the parts cost-effectively. A prosthesis costs less than $ 500. It either duplicates the movement of the other hand or is moved by brain waves. "We are still waiting for medical approval," he says in an interview with the "Presse am Sonntag". Checks have been going on for a year, and he hopes it will happen next year. The medical requirements are also the reason why he made his developments as open source. "Something like this is always about the trust of the user and the company," he says. And the disadvantages are minor. A user can develop the project for himself, but he cannot just sell it, he explains.

No competition. And LaChappelle does not want to take any risks, not only because America likes to take legal action, but because his inventions also put large pharmaceutical companies in trouble. “The prosthesis industry has not developed further in years. They can charge $ 80,000 for a prosthesis because there is no competition and they get their money from insurance. My goal is not to harm the companies, but to develop a better tool for people who need prostheses, ”he says. And: We want to use technology to have a positive impact on life. "

And you believe him too. Instead of collecting millions through business angels, he and his four colleagues (no more working for the start-up yet) have decided not to sell shares. "That brings with it positive, but also many negative aspects," he says. Their philosophy is to take what they need. For a crowdfunding campaign that was $ 10,000. He can already earn money with his invention anyway. The arm prostheses for humans are only the small, “commercial” part of his company.

Better control. LaChappelle's robotic arms, actually controlling them, can also be used for other devices. In the industrial sector, Unlimited Tomorrow works with companies such as demining services. "Instead of a joystick, companies can use our arm-controlled control system," says LaChappelle. That would make handling a lot easier. In the long term, he says, he wants to improve the lives of people in difficult situations with his inventions. Be it in the water, in space or after a natural disaster.

After all, LaChappelle has long been working on an exoskeleton that is not only supposed to let the paraplegic walk again, but can also be strapped to any object. An easily controllable robot.

("Die Presse", print edition, June 7th, 2015)