This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.

More than 2 million people in the United States live with limb loss, which often severely affects their ability to perform daily functions in the way they used to. From household chores to regular hobbies, limb loss has the potential to disrupt every level of the lives of those affected.

As technology progresses, some companies are using these advances to create prosthetics that return as much function to their users as possible. At Chapel Hill-based Adapt Bionics, co-founders and University of North Carolina alumni Greg Bantista and Chas Feuss are specifically using 3D printing to help athletes with limb loss get back in the game.

“I knew that I wanted to work in spaces to help people with disabilities and injuries. When I was in my MBA program, my mom was involved in a bad accident and fractured her C1 vertebrae, and the doctors gave her a 75 percent chance of being a quadriplegic for the rest of her life. As someone who spent the last 10 years working in the startup space, I got kind of frustrated that more people weren’t focusing on these serious types of issues,” said Feuss. “From there, Adapt Bionics really came into being during quarantine. A family friend broke his left wrist and wasn’t able to golf. Now I wasn’t a huge golfer at the time, so I didn’t see why that would be super debilitating — but especially during COVID, golfing was really his only physical and social outlet.”

After learning more about the injury, Feuss used his experience to explore open-source, 3D-printed prosthetics, and created a wrist brace for the golfer’s right arm, making it possible for him to swing his golf club one-handed with increased flexibility and support.

After this first product, Feuss and Bantista thought they might continue to work specifically with golfers. However, since limb differences are so unique, there isn’t always a prosthetic option that fits everyone. In pursuing that variability, they began to branch out into what is now Adapt Bionics.

Equipped with degrees from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, funding from the N.C. Idea Grant and connections in Launch Chapel Hill, the two were able to find resources and mentorship to help get their business off the ground.

The unique location of Chapel Hill also helped in their growth.

“We have world-class universities with great academics and technology at N.C. State, Duke and UNC. We also have a booming tech industry in general, so it’s a very innovative and tight community,” said Bantista. “Whenever we reached out to anyone, people would respond to us right away and were willing to get on the phone and give us tips on business and technology.”

“I was planning on moving out to Silicon Valley to work for startups out there, but when I started looking at the cost of living, it was unbelievable,” added Feuss. “With that cost of living comes a little bit more flexibility when it comes to working on a business and being able to sort of bootstrap it yourself.”

Since the technology the Adapt Bionics team is working with is complex, development takes time. Throughout the process, fundraising plays a key role in future success. Moving forward, Feuss and Bantista hope to generate the revenue needed to see both their team and distribution opportunities grow.

Developing products with a more general market reach can help Adapt Bionics improve their coding and algorithms while also generating the income needed for that further growth.

“If the finish line is fully functioning smart prosthetics, that are going to help people with disabilities and limb differences participate in physical activities, that’s going to require several iterations of technology — and probably bringing on a larger engineering team. However, we’re finding these niche markets where we can use some of the technology we’ve developed to create a credible product that will help people,” said Fuess. “We’re working on a fitness product now that will help people understand where they are in their form for various exercises. Although that’s not the end vision product for us, we are actually starting to develop our sensor technology and some of our coding and algorithms in the process, while also having a product that we think can actually sell to a consumer and help them with their fitness goals.”

Even once their more advanced products are finished, Feuss and Bantista want to keep the focus on improving the everyday lives of normal people.

“Right now, you’re seeing professional athletes using this sort of technology to give them feedback on what they’re doing correctly and incorrectly out on the field. It’s a similar technology that we want to bring to the average, everyday person — someone that’s just learning how to lift weights or how to throw a baseball or something along those lines,” said Bantista. “We want to bring that cutting-edge technology that professional athletes use to more people and be able to give them that feedback and data.

The smart prosthetics industry still has plenty of room to grow, and Feuss sees the long-term potential as life-changing for those dealing with limb differences.

“Someone with an arm that doesn’t move at all can change the dial on the arm switch and grab a can of soda or something — that’s been done. Now,  we’ve got things like helping our golfers use a prosthetic that reads the muscle movements in his forearm in order to allow him to actually control the fingers,” said Feuss. “Being able to simulate some of those neuro functions so that people can move their limbs in that way is, to me, the goal for smart prosthetics in general. On our end, we want to be able to help people who are using prosthetics to be able to have long-range data on how they’ve adapted to it, so that they can continue to do the things they did before they needed it.”

This article was written for our sponsor, the Town of Chapel Hill.