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Teen prosthetics maker: Young innovators need more support, 'makerspaces'

Young innovator Shiva Nathan discusses why STEM matters for his generation and why towns need to invest in 'makerspaces'

Every March, tens of thousands of people from around the globe flock to Austin, Texas, to learn and connect over panels, parties and tacos at South By Southwest's interactive, film and music conferences. America Tonight's SXDiaries Q&A series highlights interesting and inspiring figures at SXSW.

Shiva Nathan is one of the brightest young innovators in America. A 16-year-old from Westford, Massachusetts, Nathan designed an award-winning prosthetic arm that can be moved using brain signals.

In an interview with America Tonight, Nathan discussed the future of prosthetics and the need for increased emphasis on STEM proficiency nationwide. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Take me back to the beginning. What made you think of this prosthetic arm?

In the fall of 2012, I learned about a cousin who had lost both of her arms in an accident. My family was telling me about how the arms she had weren’t very good. They were pretty basic. She could only wave them around and grab things. I figured I wanted to help her out and do something useful about that. I started trying to figure out how to build a better, cheaper prosthetic arm.

Modern prosthetics are pretty expensive and specialized, costing as much as a car in some cases; $25,000 for a higher class of prosthetic. I had this headset my uncle had bought me, as I had been big on programming video games. The headset tracks the user’s brainwaves. I thought it would be a perfect, low-cost solution, as it was only a couple hundred dollars. There was a small open source community around it. It got me thinking, “Why couldn’t I use this to help develop prosthetics?”

(Watch Nathan explain the project ahead of the 2014 Google Science Fair.)

What are some of the challenges that you and other young STEM innovators face?

The lack of a proper support structure. I didn’t do it all by myself. I had a mentor. I had my dad help me get all the parts I needed. There were people around me who helped me build the prosthetic and gave me the tools and knowledge to build this thing. I feel like a lot of these would-be, young innovators may not have that support structure.

I’m doing a little bit of work myself to help build those support structures. I worked with a local technical school in my district and donated some equipment I won in a contest to their STEM initiative. I’m in talks with them to develop a makers’ space. The makers’ spaces have the equipment and tools, and attract the talent. I want to try and create this space that will attract this kind of talent.

Being so young, how do you manage expectations from others – and from yourself?

I try not to give myself a swelled head. I try to keep this work on the down low. When I do show people, I want to show them real, tangible results that they can see. What I try to do is not brag about it too much. I just try to make sure that when I do talk about it that I try to talk about it in a measured way. 

There were people around me who helped me build the prosthetic, and gave me the tools and knowledge to build this thing. I feel like a lot of these would-be, young innovators may not have that support structure.

Shiva Nathan

You’ve talked about wanting to make this prosthetic project of yours an open source project available to anyone. What’s the reasoning behind it and what do you hope it would accomplish?

Part of it is a philanthropic desire and part of it is out of practicality. Some of the software I use is itself open source, so I can’t exactly patent all that. I figure, “Why not just go all the way and make the entire thing open source?”

A close-up of Shiva Nathan's prosthetic hand creation that uses Bluetooth technology to control movements.
John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

From what I’ve seen, there’s a market for this kind of product, but I want to keep it available for people to build themselves. I prefer to [sell to] the people who don’t have the time or skills necessary to make one. I want to focus on developing higher-end products and pushing it out into the market, and then releasing the schematics open source. I hope I won’t cannibalize any potential market there. From what I’ve seen, DIY is a thing. Anyone can build a shelf, but most people don’t build that shelf; they get people to build it for them. When they give them the money, they’re expecting a high-quality product. I’m hoping that’s the thing I can do myself. I’m hoping I can make it easy for people to build a high-quality version. I want the prosthetic to work no matter what it’s made of, but I also want to make a professional-grade version. 

At your school in Westford, Massachusetts, you’ve called yourself one of the lucky ones with access to equipment and resources. What more do you think could be done for communities and schools to give more access to these tools?

More "makerspaces." The makerspaces I’ve been to have been made privately and funded by companies instead of the towns themselves. I originally tried going through my town and we were briefly in talks to set up a STEM center, but that fell through. There wasn’t really good communication to help make that happen. So I went to the technical school and that went more smoothly.

I feel like the town governments and universities could offer spaces, mentors and resources so young innovators can learn and go do things. If towns could just see how makerspaces can help their economy by creating these jobs and these startups, then they’d be more receptive to it. I don’t really know too much about economics. Maybe it sounds stupid, but this is what towns should be doing. They need to be thinking about the companies that could be formed out of this movement.

Check out a SXDiaries Q&A with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and stay tuned for more interviews, including ones with Olympic boxer Claressa Shields and astronaut Gene Cernan.

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