Just like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg before him, Easton LaChapelle is on his way to becoming a tech superstar without ever having gone to college.
LaChappelle has been interested in robotics since his early teens. He founded his company in 2013, after giving a TED Talk where he was approached by renowned author and life coach Tony Robbins. Robbins offered to partner with LaChappelle to form Unlimited Tomorrow in February 2014.
LaChapelle’s latest project was in collaboration with Microsoft, which helped him build a prosthetic arm for a 9-year-old girl named Momo, who is missing her right arm from the elbow down. The robotic arm can hold up to 10 pounds and even comes with magnetic painted fingernails. Last summer, LaChappelle met with Momo to present her with the arm, a moment that was captured in a highly emotional video produced by Microsoft. “By doing good, good follows,” LaChappelle says in the video. “If you try to help people, other people will try to help you.”
But before his career with robotics and helping amputees took off, LaChappelle was just a little kid in Mancos, Colorado with a hunger to learn and build things out of Lego. We caught up with him to learn more about his work with prosthetics and how he views the future of robotics engineering.
So how did you start building things?
I was the kid who took apart everything I got when I was little — I had so much curiosity about how things worked. I loved creating and having the freedom that there’s really no right or wrong way to make something.
The first thing you built was a prosthetic arm made out of Legos, but how did you get into prosthetics?
I was always eager to learn what was going on underneath the surfaces. Where I went to school, there were no classes that offered what I enjoyed, so I would run home from school and teach myself things from the internet, YouTube, and Skyping people around the world. When I was 14, I got the idea [from YouTube] to create a robotic hand controlled by a glove. At the time, this was just for fun. After about nine months, I slowly pieced together the arm with Legos, airplane motors, and fishing line. It was a very primitive thing, but it was really amazing turning an idea into reality — that was extremely motivating to me. I didn’t really know anything about prosthetics. It wasn’t even on my radar quite yet.
At one point, I actually made a full robotic arm [from fingers to shoulder] and entered that in the regional science fair in Colorado. The project led me to an international science fair, where I placed second in the world in engineering. That’s where I met this 7-year-old girl who came up to my project and was looking at the details of my arm more than any other kid. That’s when I realized she was missing her right arm and wearing a prosthetic device.
That’s when I learned about prosthetics and started talking to her parents about what this process looks like. I found out the actual cost of the hand and operations, which can add up to $80,000, which is way more than what I’d ever thought. [Editor’s Note: An advanced prosthetic arm, which is controlled by muscle movements and has a fully functioning hand, can cost up to $100,000 without insurance, according to a market analysis.] I saw this little girl with a very primitive, expensive arm and then I saw the arm I made right next to her that can do way more, but I did it for a couple hundred dollars out of my bedroom. That’s when I knew I could make a difference in this market and help people around the world.
Normally, a person your age would be in college, but you’ve accomplished so much already — would you ever consider getting a degree?
It was kind of an obvious option [to skip college] with how much momentum I had, the knowledge I have, and the resources I’ll have in the future as well. So it was obvious that I had to continue down the path that I had started. Nonetheless, it was a big life decision that went against the grain. You don’t typically graduate from high school and start a business. You kinda go down the conventional path. But my parents were very supportive after they saw how serious I was about my business.
Has your age ever been an issue for you? Have you found that people take you less seriously after finding out how young you are?
A: Yes and no. I encountered that when I was younger. My high school doubted what I was doing just because of who I was at the time — just a youngster who liked to make stuff. But when I started posting YouTube videos that led to Popular Science coverage, it led to a lot of validation, which was amazing.
In the engineering world, that’s the perfect justification that you’re actually doing something serious. I started gaining respect with things like that, but a big turning point for me was my TED Talk. I started making a name for myself, so I don’t think there was much resistance from companies or individuals who said, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Maybe there was, but I never gave it the time of day. I was so focused, because this is my passion. I like to create, I love what I do, and no one can tell me differently.
You recently made a free, high-end prosthetic for Momo, a 9-year-old girl who was born without her forearm and hand. What was it like working with Microsoft on this project?
A: I was working with Momo for about a year and a half. I was in communication with her parents via Skype. So it was kind of interesting that up to meeting her in person, I only knew her through the computer, data and 3D scans. We scanned her left arm and mirrored it, so it has all of her contours and dimensions. It’s a weird situation to know a person just based off of that data. But all that just kept me motivated to create this amazing device for her, to empower her and give her independence.
When I presented her and her mom with the prosthetic, it was really amazing just to see their emotions and faces. They had no idea what to expect, but they were blown away. They didn’t know that the skin color would match hers and it’s soft to the touch. The hand we made is actually lighter than her mechanical version, and it even has fingernails she can paint. When Momo first put it on, she was so happy that her legs were jumping up and down. You could see the anticipation and excitement — she just wanted to put it on right out of the box. I almost had to stop her and be like, “Wait, I have to tell you how everything works, then it’s all yours.”
You’re now on a mission to help more people in need of affordable, high-quality prosthetics. How are you going to do that?
We put the first device on this little girl, but now we’re looking for the next amputees to work with. Around the end of the year we’re planning a crowdfunding campaign to create the next 100 hands to be able to donate them to amputees around the world. After that, we’ll be scaling and growing the business.
Source: Meet Easton LaChappelle, the 21-Year-Old 3D-Printing High-Tech Prosthetic Limbs