AWS Startups Blog

Tech for good: UK startup Andiamo hopes 3-D printing will eliminate painful orthotics for kids

A patient is fitted with one of Andiamo's orthopedics

Naveed Parvez had no interest in model trains. The choice between skipping out on a talk focused on building parts for diminutive Welsh steam trains, and grabbing a very welcome cup of coffee, was really no choice at all. Coffee it was.

And yet, Parvez found himself transfixed by Chris Thorpe, the presenter up on stage at the annual Monki Gras conference in London. Thorpe was nerding out on train parts he had fabricated using a new-fangled process for 2013: 3-D scanning and printing. Thorpe was showing off a train panel, printed in metal, that was so accurately reproduced, it featured the same paint scuffs and scratches as the original piece. Parvez immediately thought of his quadriplegic son Diamo, who had died not even a year prior.

But it wasn’t the trains that triggered Parvez’s thoughts of his son. It was the process.

Before succumbing, at the age of nine, to complications stemming from the cerebral palsy he had been battling since birth, Diamo had endured being fitted for a never-ending series of orthotic devices that took months to fashion, never quite fit right, and consequently did a poor job of supporting him as he ate, sat, and went to school. If you could make parts for a model train with such precision, thought Parvez, why couldn’t he apply that same approach to creating medical braces and splints?

That was the lightning-bolt idea that struck Parvez during that model train moment. Today, Andiamo is the eponymous London-based startup that Parvez, his wife Samiya, and friend and colleague Lee Provoost founded in 2014 to bring 3-D scanned and printed orthotics to families and children in the UK—and soon, the world.

What Andiamo, through 3-D scanning and printing, has the potential to solve for is what every great new technology brings to the party: a better, faster, and cheaper approach. For children, that crucially means brace fittings that aren’t miserable and a resulting orthotic that not only fits, but also functions better.

Parvez is very clear that the intentions of everyone involved in his son’s care and in the construction of his braces had only Diamo’s well-being in mind. But they were working within the confines of the same dated plaster molding techniques that have been used for centuries. Just imagine a young boy going in for a back-brace fitting, who, as Parvez describes him, “couldn’t communicate, hated cold things, and wasn’t able to understand what was happening to him.”

Picture Diamo lying in plaster first on his front. “The Plaster of Paris took about 10 minutes to dry; hopefully we’d been able to keep him still enough for the mold to be accurate enough for it to be removed,” is how Parvez remembers the fittings. “This was then repeated with him on his back, which he absolutely detested and would scream throughout the procedure.”

Three to six months later, the brace would be delivered. Diamo, like all kids, had grown, and so the braces had to be modified. “If we were lucky it was just a quick modification, and if we weren’t, it meant we had to go back for multiple adjustments,” Parvez recalls. “The process was trial and error.”

Six to nine months later they would do it all over again.

Ditching trial and error

Andiamo trades trial and error for precision and performance. If you have ever seen a 3-D scanner at work, it does look like something out of science fiction. You hold something that resembles an overgrown staple gun in front of an object—or this case, a part of the body—and minutes later, a precise biomechanical model of that person appears on a screen. Andiamo’s scanners are accurate to within less than half a millimeter.

Using that biomechanical model as the stepping-off point, Andiamo then designs a brace to not just fit the body of a child, but also conform to the needs of a child for better support or a particular activity. Since it’s 3-D printed in a composite plastic spit from a printer head, total turnaround time, from scan to brace, is inside of a week. If changes do need to be made, it’s a relatively straightforward process to iterate on the brace, says Andiamo CTO and co-founder Provoost.

“We’ve designed the workflow all around optimizing for this 3-D process,” says Provoost, who as the technical architect behind the UK’s Government Digital Service platform, which supports the government’s digital transformation efforts, is no stranger to security and scale. “So, we can develop these models that can be quickly corrected given input from clinicians and patients.”

While the startup manufacturers physical braces, Provoost primarily views Andiamo as a software company. What the Andiamo team is building is a platform for ingesting scanned data and outputting braces on 3-D printers in hospitals—for now, only in the UK—but ultimately wherever the patients are. Over time, Andiamo will be able to fine-tune its biomechanical models so that if a patient needs a back brace or leg splint, the process begins with the help of data pulled from other patients of similar age, height, weight, and requirements and then gets fine-tuned for the specific person.

As Andiamo builds more braces for more kinds of people (today it’s only leg and back braces) and gets the data to feed into its platform, Provoost sees leveraging machine learning to further refine and improve the models for these devices and more finely turn the dials on performance, cost, and durability.

Farther, faster, and everywhere

“The applications are really very broad,” Provoost says. “There could be better orthotics to help people with the effects of diabetes, obesity, the elderly, and sports injuries. There is really a disconnect between the kinds of orthotics we have today, and given the right data, what is possible.”

Provoost points to a 20-year-old Andiamo customer who needed leg braces. Andiamo’s machine scanned her legs and made some adjustments for her age, weight, and the activities she wanted to do. No one, including the customer, was ready for what came next.

“She could walk as fast as she could before her illness,” Provoost says. “She could walk backward in the braces, which she was never able to do with other orthotics…It ended up that she was walking so much faster and longer distances when she had her leg braces on, we had to adjust our design to cater to her capability to walk better.”

Provoost is very cognizant that Andiamo is just getting started. Scale will be required—both in terms of data and the infrastructure to 3-D print orthotics. But with financial support from organizations like WeWork, which recently awarded the company $500,000 for being a global finalist for their Creator Awards, and Andiamo as the platform where the intelligence resides, Provoost and the Andiamo team will not just build better and more varied kinds of braces, but also serve the millions of people who could benefit around the globe.

“Very soon, you will be able to take a mobile phone that has some 3-D capabilities, and travel around the world taking scans of children with only very basic knowledge of the clinical and biomechanical side of the problems,” says Provoost. Upload the scans to the cloud, and the Andiamo software will automate the processing of the data backed up by the analysis of Andiamo’s own expert clinicians and algorithms.

“We can then send the job wherever you are in the world and print it with recycled plastics overnight—that’s the goal,” Provoost adds.

It all goes back to making the process and children’s lives better, to honor the boy who sparked the idea: Diamo.

“Our guiding light is to build a platform that will not allow any child in the future to go through what Naveed and Samiya—and in particular, Diamo—went through,” Provoost says. “We are working through some very interesting tech challenges, but it is something meaningful we are building, and we believe it is a critical infrastructure for healthcare. We’ll get there.”