Photo by Princess Dickens
You may have first heard about Limbitless Solutions when Robert Downey Jr. presented six-year-old Alex with an Iron Man bionic arm.
What you may not have known is that the team of engineers and graphic designers who made Alex’s 3D arm aren’t professionals in the business of making superhero prostheses, but rather, an unassuming group of college students on a mission to make the world a better place.
Most impressive is that if you have a look at their website, the team is incredibly inclusive. Of the six members on their executive team, three are women. At a time when women occupy only 25% of STEM field jobs, this is important.
I had the privilege of meeting with these incredible women in person to find out what it’s like to be part of an organization that went from 0 to global in just under a year, and is making such a tangible difference in the community.
Meet Stephanie, Carmen, and Nicole — three women whose leadership in engineering and non-profit entrepreneurship extends well beyond the scope of simple manufacturing.
They first shared with me their various reasons for wanting to get involved with Limbitless Solutions.
The production coordinator of the team, Nicole Bizet (’16) told me she joined because she wanted to become more involved at school, outside of class but she admits that she had some initial reservations at the time.
“Back then, there were only about 15 people on the team, and it was all men. I didn’t even know anything about electronics.” Since then, the group has grown considerably. It’s Nicole’s job to facilitate communication within the group and organize meetings. Proudly, she shared that “there are now 75 active members and it’s my job to manage them all.”
Stephanie Valderrama (’16) is the creative director. She was first drawn to the unique aesthetic of the bionic arms and was thrilled to learn that her skills could be used to make a change in the community. “I always wanted the skills doctors and engineers have to actually make an impact in the world. I never knew I could do that with graphic design. This has become a dream for me.”
While the bionic arms may look like toys, they’re proving to make a real difference in the lives of the children who receive them. As it turns out, an alarming number of people want and need prostheses, but can’t acquire them for one reason or another.
As Stephanie told me, “There’s a lot of demand. Requests [come] at least once a day from people all over the world. It’s hard because you can’t help them immediately.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, some 2,250 children each year are born with an underdeveloped or missing limb. This figure does not include children who have had amputations due to infection or accidents.
And while kids like Alex learn to manage in their daily lives, they often miss out on certain simple activities we all take for granted – like being able to balance a bike holding onto both handlebars or to eat standing up, holding a bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other. More serious is the reality of emotional and social issues that develop as a result of insecurities and bullying.
“You’re going to cry a lot,” says Nicole, “You can really see how it changes each kid’s life. They’re shy at first but then they start feeling much more comfortable with themselves. It’s inspiring. Kids who used to hide their arms in their shirts are now showing them off to their friends.”
Unfortunately, insurance companies will often deny adequate coverage of prosthetic limbs for children because they’re costly to manufacture and because children typically need a new one each year due to their constant growth.
Limbitless Solutions is working hard to bridge the lack of care for the underserved masses of children missing a limb. To them, prostheses aren’t a luxury, and they strongly believe that no family should have to tell their child he or she can’t have one because they can’t afford it.
Applying what they’ve learned through their studies at the University of Central Florida and through countless hours of tinkering in the lab, they’ve been able to build functional bionic arms, producing them at low costs to give to children who need them for free. Their main tools include their university’s 3D printer and some basic electronic supplies bought on Amazon.
(Nicole) “What a lot of people don’t realize is that it takes 8 weeks to go from doing initial calculations to having a finished arm in our hands. There are always mistakes and when you have to make one little adjustment, you have to adjust everything.” She added with a smile, “Design is complex, though we make it look simple. Not that I don’t like it.”
“Sometimes there are failures and we have to start over,” says Stephanie.
The demand for arms is so high, they’ve actually had to turn some families away.
“We honestly hate saying no,” says Carmen Henriquez (‘16), the lead electronics developer. “But each arm takes 12+ hours to print, plus painting, electronics, testing, and fitting. Also, sometimes we don’t realize how difficult an arm will be compared to the other ones we’ve made. Then everything becomes brainstorming and night after night of work. We want to help as many kids as we can — as many families as we can. But it’s hard when it’s all in your volunteering time.”
Ironically, while the team is striving to make the possibilities for amputees “limitless”, they’re also working to overcome limitations of their own.
“There are a lot of hats that we have to wear,” said Stephanie. “Seeing videos of the team delivering these arms to the kids, you don’t really think about the whole process it took to make them. But it’s important to note who’s behind the curtain. The truth is that we’re all students. There’s a lot we’re still learning. Sometimes we feel discouraged because we fear we might not know enough or have the right resources to make a difference, but we’ve learned that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward and as long as we have a team willing to push towards the same dream, we can make it.”
Carmen added, “I always say that you’d think those who are working on every arm are a bunch of smart business people. But then you see us and realize we’re a group of children ourselves.”
In the words of Carmen, “I think one of the biggest challenges you have when you are new to a project is yourself. If there’s something I’ve learned it is to never be afraid to fail. Make your ideas a reality. Make your dreams a reality.”
Underscoring the importance of any amount of effort, she added, “Five minutes of your time well invested can get you really far.”
They’ve come to recognize that their lack of experience contains a silver lining.
According to Stephanie, “The beauty of it is that we’re all so young and filled with this energy to impact the world with innovative solutions. We’re running on a motivating fuel other than making money and that’s passion.”
Carmen says, “You really don’t know the impact you can make in someone’s life. You never know how much they can also change your life either.”
Nicole added, “It takes 8 weeks to build an arm, and during that time, the kids change so much. You can even see the difference every 2 weeks when they come in for updates. Wyatt, for example, is part of a theater program. Before, he was really shy. Now he’s the assistant director. His parents have told us how thankful they are for what having a bionic arm has done for him. You can really see how much his confidence has grown. It’s a complete transformation.”
And, as Stephanie says, “Being a kid isn’t easy and if we have the chance to provide them with a little more confidence that’s all that matters.”
To Carmen, it’s also an investment in the future. “We want to inspire these kids to be leaders and great people who will change the world. I like to see the arm as a little seed we plant in their heart, ready to flourish and show the world how much you can do with the simplest things.”
“I didn’t know engineering could affect people this way,” says Nicole. “It brings hope and joy to people who have had a hard life. But more than that, it inspires others to get involved. The kids who receive arms from us are not only empowered, but they, in turn, are empowering others when they share their experiences. Anni (a girl from California) got her arm from us, and just a couple of weeks later, some other girls from her class contacted us to find out how they could get involved as well.”
The Limbitless Solutions team has also visited elementary and middle schools to inspire curiosity in what they call “STEAM jobs” – science based fields that intentionally incorporate art as well.
Stephanie also informed me about how the non-profit is expanding internationally. “Managing this company comes with a lot of joy from the kids, but it also comes with the desire to help so many more.”
Recently, the team unveiled their new project to assist displaced Syrian refugees. Working with partners through the e-NABLE global network, they plan to provide 75 children with 3D printed bionic arms and a book to kick-start their education.
“We have a responsibility to solve the problem because we have these resources,” says Stephanie. “Cultivating [concern from] the public on issues that exist and motivating them to help make a difference is my ultimate goal. And the amount of people reaching out to us is incredible! People from all different kinds of organizations and locations have heard our mission and are eager to assist us in any way. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see people come together to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
It’s proven to be a truly life-changing experience for all three of these women, particularly for the ways the bionic kids have inspired them.
Nicole told me, “[Looking at] someone who doesn’t have an arm, you expect them to be sad. But the kids are so full of happiness and optimism. Their energy is impressive.”
“There are some things these kids have said while talking to us that I will never forget,” Carmen told me. “Annika, for example, commented about why she feels such a strong connection with Winter the Dolphin — because as she sees it, ‘everyone is missing something.’”
“They have really stolen my heart. Being a part of Limbitless Solutions means a lot to me. It means patience, hard work, failure, success, friendship — it means being part of something bigger than myself.”
To donate to the cause and learn more about their #bionickids, visit this site.