Vispala is a medical technology social enterprise that uses 3D printing technology to produce low-cost prosthetic arms for underserved people in India. Cisco provided early-stage funding to help them develop and test their products, scale, and become a financially sustainable social enterprise. Their initial market is in India, where close to one million people have amputations. The name, Vispala, comes from Hindu mythology: a warrior queen named Vispala lost her leg in battle, and wore a metal prosthetic leg.
Dipak Basu is founder and CEO of Vispala. From 2006 to 2019, Dipak led Anudip Foundation, a nonprofit that provides digital training to marginalized youth and women in India. Looking for a new project at Anudip that could make a positive impact, Dipak and his team discovered that low-cost prosthetics could be created with 3D printing technology. Typically, a new and functional prosthetic limb can cost between $10,000USD and $20,000USD in the developed world. Traditional prosthetics available in developing countries are less expensive, but can be heavy, have limited functionality and can cause skin irritation.
Vispala has 3D printed prosthetics available between $100 to $200 for lightweight mechanical 3D printed prosthetics and are working on a low cost electronically powered version. They have served more than 500 people and are delivering more prosthetics to amputees in need. They partner with nonprofits that subsidize the cost for those who can’t afford it. “With support from Cisco, Vispala was able to add a lot of functionality, making our prosthetics low in weight, usable, and comfortable. We have also developed a wrist rotation capability where when you turn your wrist, the prosthetic hand will open and close. We are also exploring brain-machine interfaces (BMI) that use sensors to train nerve pathways to recognize hand movements,” Dipak explained.
How Vispala pivoted their focus when a health crisis struck
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the Vispala team wanted to help address a personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage in India. They decided to use their 3D printing technology to produce face shields for frontline workers.
When residents in India were instructed to stay home to control the spread of the virus, Dipak and his management team made sure the team had laptops and broadband to work from home. Two staff members of the company stayed at the office around the clock to 3D print the headband for the shield and attach the plastic shield. Over three weeks, Vispala produced a total of 1,000 shields. The West Bengal health department accepted and distributed the shields to police and paramedics.
“Now, large companies in India are making more of them, and there are enough to go around. We are glad we were able to make a small contribution during the PPE crisis. Everyone who received a face shield was pleased with it since it was something they desperately needed,” said Dipak. Now Vispala is back to focusing on its mission to design affordable 3D printed prosthetics for those who need them the most.
When it comes to the near-term growth of Vispala, Dipak shared that many of the nonprofits they work with are still closed down. For now, they are focusing on improving their current product and developing an electronically powered prosthetic arm, which will come out in late 2020. Dipak is proud of the long-term impact that Vispala will have. “We are a responsible social enterprise that will help meet a need for better prosthetics. Vulnerable populations around the world have been putting up with poor quality for a long time. We are using new technology and design techniques to make an attractive, low-cost product for them,” he said.