Please tell us about yourself

Remember Oscar Pistorius, the ‘Blade Runner’, sprinting away on his curved prosthetic legs? You’d think that his sophisticated-looking prosthetics would be far out of the reach of the common person, and made out of something as complex as the engineering behind them.

But what if prosthetics for sportspersons could be made cost-effective and with something as simple as cane?

Rise Legs, a Bengaluru-based startup, started by 32-year-old Arun Cherian in October 2015, creates prosthetics for amputees out of cane. What’s more, they can be customized based on the purpose (sedentary, agile or sportive) as well as appearance (plain, artistic, or skin-like).

While Rise Legs is still in the R&D phase, it already has 47 happy customers, though Arun says that over 2,000 people with disabilities have approached him. “It breaks my heart but I have to ask them to wait because if I cannot provide them with the quality and the service I envision, there’s no point. I don’t just want to sell (prosthetic) legs; I want to improve their quality of life,” Arun says.

Arun Cherian has always been interested in locomotion, building bio-inspired robots and orthotics as an engineering student at prestigious research universities like Purdue, Berkeley, and Columbia. But through his work in labs at home in India, and throughout the US, something stuck with Arun: he wasn’t being taught to design with end users in mind.

“During that time, I learned a lot about how not to design,” says Arun, who attended one of our International Development Design Summits in India this summer. “Lots of PhDs sitting around a table thinking through the smartest thing they can add to the product. It’s only after we made advanced prototypes that we went to the users. It’s a bad way to design. ” 

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Arun Cherian quit his PhD in Mechanical engineering at Purdue University, USA to develop Rise Legs. Previously, he had been a researcher at University of California, Berkeley developing wearable exoskeletal suits to help the paralyzed people walk. He completed his Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University, New York and Bachelors in Mechanical from Anna University. Arun is an IDIN Network member who attended IDDS Aarogyam in Chennai, India. 

Tell us about your work

In Bengaluru’s busy Ashok Nagar locality, the business of wooden prosthetic legs and sustainable art share an office inside the walls of the WeWork workspace.

Rise Legs and Rise Design Art, a startup founded by Arun Cherian, promises its customers prosthetic legs that are six times lighter than most medical alternatives, designed to look more like human limbs, and are sustainable to boot. They achieve all this by making the legs out of cane like bamboo.

“We make high quality, affordable mobility devices, so that people cannot just walk, but also run, play, and dance,” said Arun.

How does your work benefit the community?

In India, more than 26 million people are living with a disability, and for many of them, that disability prohibits or restricts their mobility. Amputees in India have access to free prosthetic legs, but the adoption rates are poor because these low-cost or free products are often heavy and inefficient for walking. In addition, these products rarely have follow-up sessions for readjustments which are so critical for amputees. 

Although there are more efficient prosthetics available, these products are often financially out of reach for those who need them most, creating a problematic gap in the Indian prosthetics market. 

“Rise Legs makes light-weight, cost effective, flexible legs from bamboo. We digitally scan the body, so what would previously take two – three days, would now take an hour.”

Rise Design, on the other hand, does things differently. “We buy cane in bulk. We use medical grade for the prosthetic, and the non-medical grade, which is still very good cane, to create high-end art pieces that go for a lot of money. And we use that money to subsidise the prosthetic legs.”

Arun explains that this model, which blends art, innovation and design was developed to get “art to fund innovation in the medical space so that we can do social good, which in turn provides a platform for more artists to create art.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Arun completed his masters in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University and worked as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He explains how his background in robotics and biomechanics helped him find the key similarity between a biological limb and a device made of cane—flexible, spring-like qualities.

A self-proclaimed car-enthusiast, Arun holds a Masters in mechanical engineering from Columbia University and has also worked as a researcher at University of California in Berkeley. He was pursuing his PhD (in developing soft, wearable exoskeleton suits which provided support to disabled persons) from Purdue University in 2014 when he came down to Kerala for his sister’s wedding.

“It really was a curiosity-based invention. My background is that of a roboticist and I used to study the biomechanics of locomotion. I was doing my PhD in how animals and robots can walk. Very simply put, the leg of any animal, whether it is an elephant, giraffe, lion, human, dog or a cockroach, no matter what the size or the number of legs it has, all animals walk the same. The legs are like tuned springs. This is also how we get robots to walk and run, we make their leg like a spring. When I came down to Kerala for my sister’s wedding, I saw we have cane furniture at home. If cane can be bent in all these beautiful shapes and bear our weight, from a mechanical standpoint, it can bend and take weight, that’s a spring. So if cane is a spring, and if the leg is a spring, then the question was, can I make a leg out of cane?”

“In Kerala, we have cane furniture bent in all of these beautiful ways and it takes a lot of weight. It’s basically a spring. Biomechanically, our leg is also a spring of tuned stiffness. In fact, biomechanically, all animals pretty much have the same leg stiffness to body weight ratio. And I wondered if you could make a prosthetic leg of tuned stiffness out of cane,” Arun explains. 

This epiphany led him to local artisans, and he was delighted to find out that it is indeed possible to make a leg out of cane, and it can support human weight, too.

He spoke to the local artisans and asked them if cane could be moulded into the shape of a leg. While the artisans replied in the affirmative, Arun also realized that out of the 1,200 species of cane, he needed to identify the right kind to use in the prosthetics. And here, the artisans’ knowledge came in handy.

After designing the first prototype, Arun tried approaching many universities including Kerala and Cochin universities to run mechanical trials, but to no avail. In July 2014, finally, he was able to get through to IISc in Bengaluru, which provided Arun with machines big enough to test the prosthetics for push and pull. The results, Arun says, were much more promising than what he expected.

After wrapping up his sister’s wedding in October 2014, Arun sought permission to start clinical trials and partnered with Christian Medical College, Vellore in early 2015. By July, he had put in his papers, quitting his PhD at Purdue. And while he had estimated that the trials wouldn’t take over six months, Arun points out that they are still ongoing.   

He has appeared on several TED talks. At TEDx Bocconi Mumbai, he advocated a brand of manufacturing which he terms “Frugal Innovation”. “The solutions through frugal innovation or creative constraint need not be sub-par, with adequate thought they can still be elegant and world class….With the advent of technology, it is absolutely possible to do more with less.” These prosthetic legs are available at a price which is a fraction of the price of other artificial prosthetic legs which are available in the market.

Tell us about your experiences with customers

In a little over a year that Rise Legs has been operational, there are various success stories to its credit. It began with 13-year-old Madhusudhan, both of whose legs had been amputated over the knee. This posed a double challenge for Arun and his team, which comprises a cane artisan, a prosthetist and a technician.

Arun explains that while the prosthetic for a person whose leg has been amputated below the knee has two components (the prosthetic foot and the socket using which the stump is attached to the prosthetic), Madhusudhan needed a prosthetic leg with three components. “Since he was an amputee above the knee, he would also need a knee joint, which we needed to buy off the shelf,” explains Arun.

They were eventually able to design prosthetic legs which allowed Madhusudhan to not only walk without crutches but also enabled him to kick a ball by the fifth hour of wearing them. Madhusudhan then began training for the TCS marathon, earning himself the moniker of Bengaluru’s ‘blade runner’.

Another customer of Rise Legs, Prajwal B, is a body builder. Having lost his left leg in a bike accident in 2010, the 25-year-old tried a variety of prosthetics before a friend put him in touch with Arun in November 2015. Not only did the cane leg provide him with more agility due to its light weight, but also ensured that Prajwal was able to comfortably wear it for more than 12 hours a day.

“I could walk on rough and uneven terrains, jump and much more,” informs Prajwal happily, adding that Arun was always keen on taking feedback from him.

However, Prajwal and many others are initially unsure if the cane leg would be able to support their body weight. “I give them the prosthetic leg and ask them to try and break it. When they are unable to, they are a lot more confident. And because cane can flex, the more body weight you put on it, the better spring it will have. The more you trust the leg, the more it will support you,” Arun explains.

What are the challenges you are facing?

The current challenges that Arun is facing however, are sourcing sockets and scaling the operation to a larger one.

Arun explains that while his understanding of biomechanical locomotion helps him get the geometry of the prosthetic leg right, the socket requires medical as well as technical expertise. “For a country where over a million people are physically disabled, there aren’t many prosthetists to provide these services affordably,” Arun rues.

Currently bootstrapped with the help Association of People with Disability in Kamanahalli and a few foreign organizations like MIT Boston (providing fellowship), International Red Cross (providing institutional support), Arun says finding the right investors is difficult.

“I have had investors approach me saying that they can help me mass produce prosthetic legs. That’s not what I want to do. I want to follow up, to ensure that the personal aspirations of these people are catered to. It’s hard to find takers for medical hardware with a social cause in India,” Arun says.

Currently, Rise Legs is still fine-tuning the design and the personalization of the prosthetics takes time with limited resources at hand. And while Arun wants to produce 1,00,000 cane prosthetics a year eventually, he says that quality of experience will continue to remain his priority.

Another thing Arun wants to ensure is that Rise Legs’ products remain cost-effective. While the basic cane leg starts from a few thousand rupees, the prosthetic leg required for sports can go up to a lakh. The cost also depends on whether the customer wants artwork or cosmetic add-ons, like textured skin to cover the leg.  

Arun is aware that he faces a long and difficult journey to realise his vision for Rise Legs. Does he ever have second thoughts about leaving behind a prolific career in robotics?

“I have no regrets. I’ve worked on a lot of cool technology but I didn’t want this to become just another cool project. I’m learning things I would never have in my PhD. And I’m not doing this for the short-term. So, I have no qualms waiting for the right opportunities and people,” Arun maintains. 

What advice does he have for people aspiring to build a start-up?

“It’s so true when people say, ‘If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room’. Work with people who are better than you in what they do, and together as a team, learn to solve the problem elegantly. The personal and philosophical growth I had, was orders of magnitude larger than the technical and the business challenge I faced. It’s more of a personal journey than a business journey.”