Our life experiences not only shape our thoughts, but sometimes lead us to our careers as well.

Nilesh Walke, our next pathbreaker, Founder Director at Grasp Bionics, designs and builds below elbow prosthetic hands for people in such a way that they can continue with their normal life.

Nilesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about meeting a person who had lost his right arm in an accident and realizing that he could apply his design and engineering skills to help a huge population in India who have lost their hand mostly in agricultural accidents.

For students, you should find your own calling. Seek activities that brings a sense of purpose to you and you shall know what career to pursue.

Nilesh, tell us about your background?

I was born in Mumbai. I completed my graduation there and moved to Bangalore for higher studies. Throughout my schooling I was never a topper, but I used to take part in almost all the extra-curricular activities, be it drawing competitions, sports or science exhibitions. My father is an engineer and used to work in the aviation sector. In his free time, he used to troubleshoot equipment such as televisions, radios, mechanical watches and other appliances. I used to observe him working and developed early interest in the products around us and the technology that drives it.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated as a Mechanical Engineer at Mumbai University and pursued master’s in design from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

The choice to become an entrepreneur in the field of medical devices is rooted in my interaction with all the people who have had influence on my thought process.

Right from the early stage my father taught me to be curious. My mother taught me to be persistent. This helped me explore other domains than the one I was taught. During engineering, professor Venkatesh taught me to understand & solve problems through basic principles of Physics. This helped me crack the GATE exam and enter Indian Institute of Science to study Product Design. My mentor, professor Dibakar Sen who I met during masters taught me how to be rigorous and methodical while designing products. Under his guidance I could design and develop a product as complex as a prosthetic hand.

I always had the best guidance throughout my life for which I think that I am privileged. I always wanted to help the ones who are not as privileged as many of us and hence, I choose to help them through my products that I built.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

I chose to pursue the education that matched my interest. During my 2nd year of M. Des, I happened to meet a person who had lost his right arm in an accident. The more I interacted with him, the more I could understand his pain and difficulty he faced in carrying out day-to-day activities. I decided to help him, and my co-founder and friend Vinay V who had similar interests, joined me for the same. We designed and built a prosthetic hand by the end of our masters. I wanted to continue to work on the prosthetic hand to refine it, but my financial condition did not support that dream. After my master’s, I chose to work in the aviation industry. I worked at UTC Aerospace Systems as a senior engineer. During my tenure at UTC, I filed a couple of patents, worked on various systems of landing gear and learnt to work with large teams. After getting my finances straight, I re-joined Indian Institute of Science as a project scientist to continue to work on the prosthetic hand. After completion of the project, myself and Vinay co-founded Grasp Bionics. 

How did you get your first break?

I don’t believe in the first break. You take all the opportunities that come your way to reach your goal.

In my case, it was letting go of a stable and well-paying job to go back back IISc to continue to work on the prosthetic hand. It was the opportunity I took to reach my goal.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Developing a prosthetic hand (not a robotic hand) specifically for Indian population comes with its set of challenges.

Both the terms, Prosthetic hand and Robotic hand are generally used interchangeably. But in a stricter sense, a prosthetic hand is specifically designed for humans to use it as an alternative to their natural hand. It is designed to be mounted on the residual stump. Whereas a robotic hand has an end effector which looks like fingers. It may be a part of an industrial robotic arm or a part of a humanoid. Hence the design constraints like weight and size are flexible as it is not mounted on the human hand. The challenges explained are specific to a prosthetic hand. 

Challenge 1: How to make a prosthetic hand affordable without compromising its functionality.

Majority of the cost goes into the actuators that drive all five fingers. We came up with the mechanisms that will allow all the fingers of the prosthetic hand to move with respect to each other while using just one actuator, thus reducing the overall cost of the prosthetic hand.

Challenge 2: How to increase acceptability of a prosthetic hand, as at the end of the day, it is not a part of a body but a machine.

A prosthetic hand is fitted to the user through a custom made socket. The fitment of the socket is so designed that it becomes comfortable for the user to wear it for a longer period. Also, a prosthetic arm is made to look natural thus taking care of body image.  

A little bit about what you do currently?

I work as a director of Grasp Bionics.

There is a huge population in India who have lost their hand mostly in agricultural accidents. We “build below” elbow prosthetic hands for them in such a way that they can continue with their normal life.

To develop a prosthetic hand, one needs a knowledge of multiple domains such as mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, knowledge of anthropometry, ergonomics, neuroscience and even psychology. Being a product designer, I could integrate the bits and pieces of above streams I learnt during master’s, but I feel like I am still learning.  

What is a typical day like?

No two days are the same for me. On a few days I will be researching on how to make a prosthetic hand better, on a few other days I will be designing it, and on some days I would be interacting with users to understand their requirements, while sometimes I will be getting it manufactured.

What is it you love about this job? 

When you see that someone has benefited with your work, it brings immense satisfaction.  

How does your work benefit society? 

When a person loses his hand, it’s not just a part of the body that he has lost. The person loses his ability to take care of himself and becomes dependent on others. He loses his ability to earn and if he is a sole earner in the family, the whole family suffers. There is exclusion from society for these individuals and they suffer from low self-esteem. Our prosthetic hand gives back the person his ability to function as he was functioning before losing his hand. He gets his image back and becomes independent. It brings a positive change in his life.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

My team and I were in Vizag testing our prosthetic hand. There was one user whose right hand was amputated. After donning the prosthetic hand, he started touching his left hand. He said that he has never touched his left side in the last four years since the accident. It’s the moments like this that matters to us.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • You must explore different domains other than the one you are learning to understand how things work. Collect all the experiences you can. It will help you to make better decisions.
  • Do not copy someone just because what they are doing looks cool. You should find your own calling. Seek activities that brings purpose to you and you shall know what to pursue in your career
  • Act persistently towards your goal. Don’t wait for that one big break. It will never come to you if you don’t act persistently.
  • Always have a mentor
  • Networking is very important. Most of the help you need; you will get through your network

Future Plans?

To make sure that prosthetic arm reaches to all who are in need.

www.graspbionics.com is our website where you can learn more about our Prosthetic Hand.