Oct. 5, 2021 -- Legos are a playroom staple in many American homes. But while most kids were building cars and spaceships out of these colorful connectable blocks, 14-year-old Easton LaChappelle was making a robotic hand.
"It was kind of a far-fetched idea," says the now 25-year-old inventor.
Growing up in Mancos, a tiny rural town in southwestern Colorado, LaChappelle had plenty of time to come up with fanciful inventions.
"I exhausted the school system fairly fast,” he says. “In my freshman year, I was already taking senior-level math classes and saying, 'What’s next?'"
With little external stimulation to keep his agile mind occupied, LaChappelle decided to teach himself engineering and robotics.
"I took apart everything I could get my hands on," he recalls. "I would go to Walgreens, take all the disposable cameras they were going to throw away, and remove all the electronics."
LaChappelle's first robotic hand used Legos as a plastic support base. He made the fingers from electrical tubing and used fishing line for the tendons, the thick tissues that attach bones to the muscles of the fingers and thumb of a real hand and make them move.
A glove controlled his robotic hand's movement.
"When I moved my hand, the robotic hand would copy my motion. I could pick up objects. I could shake hands with myself," LaChappelle says.
As soon as he created the hand, he devised ways to improve it. He added finger joints and an opposable thumb. Then he wondered, "What if I could 3D-print it?"
A 3D printer lets inventors build three-dimensional working objects from a digital model. LaChappelle got his first 3D printer as a 16th birthday present, and he was off.
His first printer was very primitive.
"It was like a hot glue gun with some motors attached to it," he says. "But it was running 24/7 in my bedroom."
He built a 3D hand, and then an entire arm that could toss a ball and shake hands. In 2013, his robotic arm won first place for engineering in the Colorado State Science Fair. Later that year, it placed second at the International Science and Engineering Fair. That same arm shook hands with former President Barack Obama at the 2013 White House Science Fair.
Changing Lives, One Limb at a Time
A chance meeting at the 2013 Colorado State Science Fair would change the path of LaChappelle's career. A little girl came up to him, curious about his invention. She was wearing a prosthetic on her right arm that was little more than a claw. He watched how she moved and opened it.
"It was extremely eye-opening for me," LaChappelle says.
He learned from the girl's parents that the prosthetic arm cost $80,000. Despite the steep price tag, the limb was bulky, uncomfortable, and not very useful. What's more, the girl would soon outgrow the limb and need a new one.
"I couldn't accept that," he says, adding that he knew he could build a cheaper and more user-friendly arm.
"That was the moment I dedicated my life to making better prosthetic technology," he says.
In 2014, at age 18, LaChappelle started his own company called Unlimited Tomorrow, with financial backing from life coach Tony Robbins.
In the first few years of the company's existence, LaChappelle had to work out the technology needed to create custom limbs for a fraction of the price of existing ones.
The model he eventually developed lets users scan their limbs using a 3D scanner in their home, rather than having to get fitted in person. Then the company prints, assembles, and tests the limb. Finally, it's shipped to the user. By streamlining the production process, LaChappelle brought the cost of his prosthetic limb, called TrueLimb, down to $8,000.
His first customer was a little girl named Momo, who was missing part of her right arm and hand. In 2017, they met in Seattle, where the inventor helped to fit Momo with her new prosthetic arm.
TrueLimb looks and feels like a human arm, right down to the fingernails (which can be polished). It's controlled by the user's muscles, just like a real limb.
Whenever someone is fitted for a TrueLimb, they go through a process of muscle training, where sensors in the prosthetic's socket learn to detect their muscles.
"When someone first gets the device, they put their arm into a calibration tool that learns where the muscles are," LaChappelle says. "The first few minutes are like riding a bike -- you’re getting used to it.”
He watched as Momo experimented with her new limb. Suddenly, everything "clicked."
"She focused on moving her hand instead of moving her muscles," he says. With her new limb, Momo was able to shake hands and open a door.
LaChappelle's company also provided a prosthetic limb to 14-year-old Aashna Patel, who is missing the lower part of her left arm. Her story is featured in the documentary short The Inventor, which is part of the Generation Impact series available on YouTube and HP's The Garage.
Putting the User First
TrueLimb has sold hundreds of prosthetic limbs over its 7 years in business. The company sells direct to consumers, to hospitals and clinics, and to foundations that fund the cost for people who want these devices but can't afford them.
"Each TrueLimb is made to the person. It's in your image, down to your finger length and finger width," LaChappelle says. It's also matched to each person's skin tone.
Children typically outgrow their prosthetics within 12 to 14 months. When they outgrow a TrueLimb prosthetic, they simply send it back to the company, which upcycles the parts to build a new limb.
Being able to give children like Aashna and Momo prosthetic limbs is "incredible," LaChappelle says. "It's exciting and humbling to see this device actually being worn and being an extension of them."
He says he hopes to make TrueLimb even more affordable, giving access to more of the approximately 40 million amputees worldwide. The technology may also have a use for people who've lost hand or arm movement from a stroke.
"I want to continue challenging myself, the company, and this industry to look at things differently and put the user first," LaChappelle says.