Nate Macabuag, founder of Koalaa, a London-based soft prosthetics company has continually shown his commitment to making the lives of people without upper body limbs better in a more affordable way.
Nate met Alewx Lewis, a quadruple amputee during a master’s degree project at Imperial College, London. Through Lewis, he understood that comfort, ease of use, and accessibility were things that people with limb differences needed.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers notes that Macabuag’s invention of the soft-tissue prosthetic limbs wasn’t his original idea. He had hoped to develop a “cool” technology based on an Ironman-inspired bionic hand using sensors and electronics to power 3D-printed mechanisms.
However, his plans changed after he discovered that prosthetics have not gone through any significant improvements since World War II. The materials used were inflexible and it took a long time to produce them, in the end, the cost becomes great and unbearable for those who need them.
This was the case of Lewis who had on an NHS-supplied prosthetic which was unpleasant and stiff to wear, he could not even hold a pen when he had it on. It took nine months for Macabuag and his team to come up with a solution for Lewis. The day before the project, they still had no solution to get his fingers to hold a pen.
The young inventor ordered a 50p pen-holder clip from Amazon out of desperation and joined it to the palm of the bionic hand with the fingers enclosing the attached pen. He found some fabric and a sewing machine, and created a socket and bag for the hand.
Macabuag disclosed that they were embarrassed to show the prototype to Lewis but when they did, he loved it and even mentioned that he would buy it if he could.
With their first work being somewhat successful, Macabuag and his team were encouraged to make it better. “That feeling of being useful to Alex was just addictive and we wanted to help more people like him by creating super-simple, accessible and affordable prosthetics but needed resources and also we were still students,” he said.
Macabuag convinced his supervisor to allow him to use the prosthetic project in his final year. He graduated with a first-class degree in 2018 and continued to grow his team and work on the prototype.
He later founded his company, Koalaa, in 2020 according to Startups Magazine, with the help of various clinicians, charities, and support organizations.
In 2021, Macabuag made it to Forbes 30 under 30 Europe List. They noted that the prosthetics industry is broken: equipment is heavy and uncomfortable, as well as prohibitively expensive and inaccessible. This situation has left about 35 billion people all over the world with no access to prosthetics.
According to Forbes, “Nate Macbuag is tackling the challenges in the prosthetics industry through less expensive prosthetics that are soft and modular, making it possible to be fitted to anyone in the world through a virtual clinic.”
Macabuag expressed his surprise at appearing on the list, “I’m very speechless, to be honest! I never expected to wake up to an email telling me I was a Forbes 30 under 30 and all the messages of support that have been flooded in are just phenomenal, ” he said.
Koalaa centers its products on three key groups: Kids- because they quickly grow out of the traditional prosthetics; very recent amputees – because their limbs are too tender for a stiff prosthetic; and lastly, amputees living in middle-and low-income countries – because they often have no prosthetics available to them at all.
In 2021, Koalaa received €145K from the British Design Fund to give the company the push it needed to supply soft prosthetics to children and adults around the world, according to EU-Startups. They are Koalaa’s first institutional financier since 2020.