Bioniks CTO Anas Niaz, along with patient Raja Hasan, showcasing their product to the former Greman envoy.
Bioniks CTO Anas Niaz, along with patient Raja Hasan, showcasing their product to the former Greman envoy.

IN 2016, Omer Baloch, father of five-year old Mir Bayyan Baloch with a congenital right upper limb amputation, approached two young engineers to help him get his son a functional artificial hand. And so began the journey of Bioniks — a Karachi-based bionic upper limbs manufacturing startup.

What exactly bionics though? It’s the use of engineering design and methods — including robotics and electronics — in biological use cases.

Coming back to limbs, how does a bionic one differ from a usual prosthetic limb (aka mechanical)? To start with, the latter has to be moved with the force of the functional limb as compared to bionic, that is controlled via brain signals generated from muscle movement, and equipped with a network of ‘smart’ sensors and actuators which allow the user to move the artificial limb without external support. .

“A typical mechanical prosthetic arm weighs between one and two kilograms versus ours that measures around 500-600g. Plus, bionic arms are sort of plug-and-play and don’t require any surgery,” CEO Ovais Hussain Qureshi further explains.

Given the peculiar size and other requirements, the production process is tailor-made with each arm manufactured after an order is received and measurements taken so it can fit perfectly. Once an order is placed (usually through a referral from one of their partner hospitals) and the patient examined, the startup takes three days to manufacture, try and test, and deliver the product and it is priced at Rs200,000.

It all began as a final-year project when Anas Niaz and Ovais Hussain Qureshi were mechatronics seniors. “We started from a mechanical prosthetic arm but by the second or third order, had made a robotic one and later on introduced sensor-based elbow movement as well.

Currently we are working on finger movement as well so that it can support functions such as typing as well,” Qureshi says.

Since its launch in March 2016, the startup has been funded by the two co-founders. However, since this is a particularly research-intensive business, needing iterations after iterations, how long can the duo continue incurring the expenses that come with all of it? Why not just go for external funding instead and scale up?

“The venture capitals here have quite unreasonable demands in terms of the stake required vis-a-vis amount offered and have quite a predatory approach. We’re instead trying to get corporates to make their CSR contributions to us,” says the CEO. Banking on firms for philanthropy hardly makes a case for good business model though.

But considering that the startup is actually a social enterprise, not a for-profit firm, it makes much more sense.

What about now? Are they making ends meet? “We are running a product development company alongside Bioniks so we invest some earnings from there as well to keep our R&D going plus the money made on orders fulfilled so we are getting by for now,” the CEO claims.

Even though the product is priced much lower than the international rates, Qureshi has found it hard to create a sustainable demand given the general lack of affordability. Would that require a further reduction in prices to finally grab a market? “The current levels are already low enough, given our iteration and R&D costs. If we can score some money that takes care of our research, then we can eventually cut down on the manufacturing costs as well but again, it’s an if,” says he.

This is not the most active of industries even worldwide, with only a few notable players operating in either the startup or the traditional scene. The most notable is Ottobock, a well-established German prosthetics company with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, that has ventured into bionic limbs whereas the hottest player in the new economy is Open Bionics - a UK-based company with $8.8m in investments - that has disrupted the industry with low-cost products since its founding in 2014. What sets Bioniks apart from them?

“Ottobock is the best and the biggest player in the industry with their bebionic hand being the most sophisticated product technology-wise but it’s priced way higher than ours,” says Qureshi. Similarly, Open Bionics’ Hero Arm costs some 5,000 pounds, making Bioniks a much cheaper alternative. That makes for a good opportunity in the international market where the Karachi-based startup has a significant cost advantage. The question is: do they such plans?

“We pitched at a conference in the Netherlands last year and asked for some $50,000 from an investor but you need a lot of licences to operate there (Europe) which requires a lot of money,” Qureshi says, adding “but he mentored us and hinted at the possibility of investing and launching from there given that we work on certain things.”

The writer is member of staff:

m.mutaherkhan@gmail.com

Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2019