Three years ago it was nothing more than a school project and proof of concept — the second-place winner at a university showcase contest — but it grabbed headlines as far away as the United Kingdom.
For their senior project at UTSA, Ryan Saavedra and three classmates had built a robotic prosthetic hand for less than $700, a fraction of what many prosthetics like it on the market cost. Their 3D-printed model, offering artificial intelligence-enhanced bionic prosthetics at an affordable price, dangled the prospect of upheaval in a multibillion-dollar industry. Reporters asked Saavedra, what’s next?
“I had absolutely no idea,” he said, recalling the experience this week. “I was an undergrad with no prior experience of building a company or commercializing a medical device.” In fact, he had no plans to do so.
Today Alt-Bionics, the startup Saavedra founded, is on a steady path to carry his concept to market. It’s in talks to begin its first small-scale clinical trials, and the venture has gathered attention from local investor groups and business observers far beyond San Antonio’s tight-knit robotics scene. Manufacturers from Poland and clinicians in South Africa say they want to work with Alt-Bionics.
After a successful first round of funding last year, a second round is underway, intended in part to help the startup produce its first commercially available prosthetics.
The flurry of early media coverage did little to motivate Saavedra to take his concept beyond a school project, he said. But those news segments reached a friend, who asked if her cousin, an Army Ranger with multiple amputations from a tour in Afghanistan, could try out the model his team had created. Saavedra agreed, and the veteran quickly programmed the hand to make a rude gesture. Saavedra said the man was thrilled.
“His family asked me, ‘What’s next’? And that question is a lot different coming from someone who these devices can help,” he said.
Saavedra, 28, fields hundreds of inquiries from potential consumers from South America, Russia, India and elsewhere, asking how they can get his device. Most are responding to a TikTok video clip he posted, showing a montage of the prosthetic’s development that currently has more than 18 million views on the app. Saavedra said he films just about everything he does.
A pitch for disruption
Advances in high-tech prosthetics have lurched forward in recent years, and Saavedra isn’t the only one to pursue a low-cost version.
But the high price tag of these devices, often not covered by insurance, aren’t the only challenge for amputees looking for a below-the-elbow prosthetic.
These kind of electronic prosthetics often are cumbersome and prone to technical breakdowns, said Mona Patel, founder of the San Antonio Amputee Foundation. “Honestly, a lot of times they end up sitting in a closet.”
And, she warned, any startup seeking to change this would face daunting prospects. “They would be going up against large manufacturers who have money for marketing, research and development, and have been at it for decades.”
Saavedra doesn’t downplay the challenge. Part of his pitch is that the bionic hand industry is ripe for disruption, and that stagnant technology has caused inflated prices.
While many devices with similar functionality typically cost tens of thousands of dollars, Alt-Bionics is pushing for a price point around $3,500.
Alt-Bionic’s hand allows users to control it through sensors that detect electric activity in other muscle groups, such as the forearms or shoulders. AI helps guide the hand into various poses, and more still are available through customization on a connected phone app. Haptic feedback allows the user to have a sense of grip and pressure.
And while these kind of prosthetics often require expensive repairs by professionals, Saavedra also is seeking to make his device easily repaired by users by enabling them to remove and replace each finger individually using readily available replacements.
He and the two part-time engineers who work for him also have sought to make the hand durable. After hearing about an amputee who, upon receiving an expensive bionic limb, immediately broke it by punching through drywall, Saavedra said that became the benchmark for the durability of their own model.
Some investors are buying Saavedra’s pitch.
Last year, before winning second place at TechFuel, a startup pitch competition funded by Bexar County, Alt-Bionics sought $200,000 in a pre-seed funding round. It ultimately collected $283,000.
Among the contributors were a city-affiliated economic development entity and Alamo Angels, a local angel investor network connected to the Texas Research & Technology Foundation, whose accelerator Alt-Bionics went through last year.
“They stood out as an investment opportunity,” said Juan Sebastian Garzon, the executive director of Alamo Angels, in a conversation late last year.
That flood of investor interest surprised Saavedra. “When we closed our round, I took a deep breath and cried,” he said. “I’ve come a long way.”
His path has been a winding one. Nearly a decade ago, Saavedra flunked out of UTSA his freshman year, doing poorly in engineering classes. “I thought of myself as a failure,” he said.
He enrolled at San Antonio Community College to pursue becoming a firefighter and took an astronomy class that sparked a new interest in science and technology. He convinced UTSA to re-admit him, and he ultimately graduated in 2020 with a degree in electrical engineering — and a budding new startup.
Because of his own experiences as a student, Saavedra said he relishes the opportunity to speak to electrical engineering students, as he has done at UTSA and the University of North Texas.
This past weekend, he set up a booth at a youth-oriented science fair at the Witte Museum, where he gave some advice to a 16-year-old preparing for college: Don’t be afraid to fail.
“Through failure, you might find out that you want to do something else,” he said. “And your inspiration may come from somewhere unexpected.”