WILMINGTON—Prosthetic limbs have come a long way, allowing not just mobility but athleticism that would have been impossible 20 years ago. But current prosthetics aren’t cheap, and they aren’t easy on the people who manufacture them either.
Kyle Trivisonno, a Wilmington-based entrepreneur, is developing methods at his start-up Eco TEK Industries to build prosthetic limbs from the fibers of the hemp plant.
Once processed, Trivisonno said the resulting material has the strength and lightness you would want from carbon fiber, but offers the possibility of a much less expensive prosthetic.
Trivisonno, who currently works for Atlantic Prosthetic Services in Wilmington, also knows firsthand how tough carbon fiber can be to work with.
“I love what I do, I love being a technician–you get to see real tangible change in people’s lives. But the materials we work with are very caustic. Carbon fiber is really bad for–breathing it in, getting in on your skin,” Trivisonno said. “Carbon fiber is about 100 times as bad of a skin irritant as fiberglass. You’re supposed to, really, wear a (full-body) Tyvek suit.”
Trivisonno has worked with carbon fiber for almost five years and shared legitimate concerns that carbon fiber can enter the bloodstream through pores, possibly causing cancer or other organ issues.
Carbon fiber alternatives exist, Trivisonno said, but many of them are synthetic and the production process can produce toxic byproducts not unlike GenX.
Trivisonno’s innovation is using industrial hemp fiber to manufacture prosthetics. While Eco TEK Industries is in its infancy, he hopes to eventually use renewable bio-based materials like hemp to “dramatically” reduce the cost of prosthetics.
A new hemp manufacturing boom?
The technology isn’t limited to artificial limbs, either.
“I’m really hoping to apply this technology and material to making boats, RVs, whatever people would build from fiberglass,” Trivisonno said. “I’m really excited to get into trying this material on other materials–right now I’ve built a skateboard and, it works pretty well. It’s sweet.”
Eco TEK Industries recently won $10,000 “micro-grant” from NC IDEA, a private North Carolina Foundation that helps get “high-growth entrepreneurial endeavors” off the ground. NC IDEA’s micro-grants range from $1,000 to $10,000.
For Trivisonno and Eco Tek Industries, that means being able to afford laboratory time and services at NC State, which has partnered on the program, as well as materials and other overhead.
Ultimately, Trivisonno sees Eco TEK Industries as part of a new manufacturing boom in North Carolina, utilizing the wide range of textiles that can be created from hemp.
Video: A preview of the Eco Tek Industries prototype.
In the short-term, however, he’s already produced some working prototype prosthetics. Trivisonno’s friend and test subject, Marc Dunshee, has served as the model for Eco Tek Industries’ first hemp-based artificial limbs.
So, how well do they work?
Recently, Dunshee took fourth place in the Emerge Orth 5k run several months ago, sporting Trivisonno’s hemp-based prosthetic. And, although Trivisonno’s plan is a marathon, not a sprint, it’s an auspicious start.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001