How a self-taught engineer built his son a prosthetic arm

I first met Ben Ryan, Founder of Ambionics, at an engineering exhibition back in October 2023. It was there that I learnt about his mission to build his son a better prosthetic arm – using YouTube, a 3D printer, and off-the-shelf components.

Ben started out in life as a Psychology teacher but was unfortunately made redundant in 2010. His journey to building prosthetics started with the birth of his son, Sol. Due to complications at birth, doctors had to amputate Sol’s arm just below the elbow. Ben remembers that it was a long 48-hour labour: “He was born back-to-back, and he came out compound, so his left arm presented with his head. We suspect a forceps injury.

“However, the first thing I ever remember is that he squeezed my fingers with both hands tightly.”

Unfortunately, Sol quickly lost all function in his left arm due to a blood clot forming where the forceps had been used and his arm was amputated at 10-days old.

Spending the next month in hospital with nothing to do but read his old psychology journals, Ben discovered that Sol wouldn’t receive a prosthetic limb until he was around two-years old, and there was a strong chance that he might reject it.

“I looked at the long-term ailments,” said Ben. “The long-term prognosis of living your entire life with one hand is that you put a tremendous amount of strain on the good hand. That then leads to early arthritis, premature joint points, and curvature of the spine.

“There was a whole list of horrible things that I wanted to avoid, and it seemed that the best way was to try and get [Sol] to use both limbs.”

So began Ben’s mission to build his son a prosthetic arm.

A self-taught engineer

Using his psychology background, Ben realised that nearly all of the brain growth that we have happens as a result of the first two or three months of brain development. So, it was highly likely that if Sol didn’t attempt to use his left arm in the first 16-weeks,  he would completely lose all capability of ever using it.

At four weeks old, Ben fashioned an arm out of a piece of kitchen sponge for Sol to use to bang his toys and he’s never been without a prosthetic since.

The NHS wouldn’t provide Sol with anything functional until he was three, and even then, it would have a big metal lever sticking out which was a health and safety hazard for anyone in Sol’s vicinity. So, Ben set out to improve his initial sponge arm, wanting to create something that was fully bionic.

“I immediately thought that he was going to have a kickass bionic arm, but you can’t start training a toddler that young because they’ve got so much puppy fat on the muscle. It didn’t make sense to give him a dummy arm, so I had an idea of creating a hydraulic system because I noticed that Sol always placed objects under his arm to look at them, but he would be straining his head and neck.”

Ben devised a system whereby a fluid actuator was placed under the arm and whenever Sol squeezed that, the fluid would go down the line and close the handle on the arm.

Nobody had ever done this before, so Ben took his design to Bangor University, who had just opened an innovation centre, to help create his first working prototype. It was around this time that Sol received his first NHS prosthetic, so Ben was able to take a 3D scan of the cast and incorporate the two systems.

Ben notes that he’s always been a tinkerer since he was a kid, but never a fully-fledged engineer so a lot of YouTube tutorials were necessary. He was using a free design software called Fusion 360 which helped him create his 3D-printable designs and, within three months, he had fully functional hydraulic prototype.

The formation of Ambionics

Ambionics was set up in 2016 to work alongside the university. Shortly after, there was a call for a million-pound business grant for a prosthetics company for children. Perfect, right? However, this opportunity was lost when the university forgot to put in an expression of interest supporting Ben’s claim.

“It was kind of a catastrophe,” Ben said. “That led me to part ways with Bangor University and I carried on trying to develop the hydraulic system on my own.”

After crowdfunding some money, Ben bought a 3D printer and started making his own versions. But Sol was quickly growing out of the age gap that Ben was originally designing for, so continuous prototyping was needed.

Ben made a version of the hand that had a spring-loaded thumb instead of just being passive so now Sol could hold things, but he had to manually open and close it.

“For the last eight years I’ve been developing more and more, and I’ve been looking at things other prosthetic companies make, and if they don’t offer it for children, I’ve copied it and made a version for Sol.”

In 2017, Ambionics was crowdfunding for money towards more prototyping and patenting. That crowdfunding went viral, and the company raised £20,000. Ben and Sol soon found themselves on TV and radios around the world, including Good Morning Britain. But it wasn’t just the press that were interested in Ben’s designs, families from across the world were asking him if their children could try his device. “I taught 12 other parents how to do the same thing. I became a YouTuber to start cataloguing everything I was doing and showing parents how to do the 3D scan.”

Ben was using the Xbox Kinect – a motion tracker for gaming – to take the scans which made the process extremely simple and cost effective.

A future business

In 2018, Ben was approached by a prosthetics company in Poland to become the head of the paediatric division. They made 3D printed arms using Multi Jet Fusion and medical grade plastic.

“From there, I went on to make more sockets and prosthetic arms for children than most professionals make in their entire career,” Ben notes. “I was developing some pretty serious expertise but then COVID hit.”

All the clinics in Poland closed and Ben was back by himself. Luckily, at the end of 2020, a big investment company wanted to make a TV advert and that gave him some extra money to create a design that he could commercialise.

Ben took his design to prosthetic specialists that he knew in America, through LinkedIn, who worked with him to refine the final design.

“It was great to get some proper professional feedback,” Ben notes. “We’re at the point now where I’ve just prepared the first document to file it as a medical device. The system that Sol has got now is probably the one that’s going to take him into adulthood, it’s so versatile. It gives him 80% of the function that a hand would.”

Ben is now looking to expand his clinical network and work with more prosthetists to sell his arm. The prosthetist will make and sell the socket for around £1,500 and the Ambionics kits costs around the same. “So, for the same price as an NHS passive, non-functioning hand, we’re offering a really high-performance system that’s functional,” Ben concludes.

The company is also going through another crowdfunding, trying to raise $10,000 for certification and the testing process to become CE Marked.

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe