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Meet Jon Schull, 'MHP' Foot Soldier

This week’s 'MHP' footsoldier is Jon Schull, for building a community of volunteers who design, create and donate prosthetic hands made with 3-D printers

This week’s footsoldier on “Melissa Harris-Perry” is Jon Schull, for his work building a community of volunteers who design, create and donate prosthetic hands made with 3-D printers; and for creating an online platform that connects those volunteers with individuals who need the hands. Schull is a research scientist at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity – also known as the MAGIC Center – and the founder of e-Nable and president of the e-Nabling The Future Foundation. I had a chance to talk with Schull this week about the growth of e-Nable and the impact its work has made.  

Can you tell me how e-Nable came about?

About a year and a half ago I saw a YouTube video in which a South African carpenter named Richard van As reported that after accidentally cutting the fingers off of his hand and being told that you could get a prosthetic solution to that, he did some research and found a prop maker and puppeteer from Washington State who had made a mechanically operated super-hand. And together they collaborated from across the globe to produce a 3-D printable prosthetic hand. And he mentioned in this video that he was putting the design online.

I noticed that there were were several inspirational YouTube comments going around with that video, in which people said, “This is cool, what this guy is doing, I have a 3-D printer, I would do that.”

That morning when I first saw that video, I made a Google map mash-up and I added my own comment to the YouTube video that said, “If you have a printer and you want to help – put yourself on this map. And if you need a hand, put yourself on this map.” And that’s what began to happen.

In the course of six weeks we ended up with 70 pins on the map; people started calling me and asking, now what do we do? And the rest is history. We created a Google+ community which has been growing by about 10 to 15 percent a week for well over a year, and as of today we have 2,446 members.

Tell me what it is like now that e-NABLE is taking off.

This is the rollercoaster ride of a lifetime. We’re making a real difference. There’s one smile-inducing heart-warming story after another every single day, and it’s just growing and growing.

And we don’t even quite know what it is. One the one hand we can be described as a global community of volunteers using 3-D printers to make prosthetic hands. But we’re also a global community of volunteers who are designing assisted technologies using this distributed crowd-sourced philanthropic, humanitarian, and technology model, which can go way beyond prosthetics.

And for that matter it’s all based on gifts of time and gifts of material, and so it’s suggestive of a new way of doing good in the world, also. So we don’t quite know what it is we’re prototyping but we want to get it right for 3-D printed prosthetics as we expand and clarify.

Can you tell me a favorite moment?

We have a lot of them. Frankly there are a few that come to mind just because they’re the freshest. Here at RIT we pioneered the development of an arm for kids who don’t have wrists… we use elbow bending as the way of opening and closing the hand. And we did that several months ago for a seven-year-old boy named Derek, and that led to one story… And just in the last few days a nine-year-old kid in New England has a newer version of the arm, and there are some great videos of him using it to serve a tennis ball, to guide a pool cue, and to pick things up off the table… It’s just a thrill to see something that was just a wacky idea actually being useful and making people smile.

Another side to this is that the community has become an extraordinary research and development lab, creating new designs and new solutions – again, all volunteer and all impromptu – but the speed at which we’re churning out new improvements is frankly breathtaking. I’ve been in scientific and business technology development for a long time, and I’ve never seen anything going along as efficiently as this, even though it’s sort of uncontrolled and chaos… It’s sort of the mosh pit model of research and development.

Tell me about the super-hero angle.

There have been several kids who have started calling them their superhero hands... Traditional prosthetics are heavy, and they’re clunky, especially for kids. And they try to look like real hands, but they’re not. And so they have relatively little appeal to children.

Superhero hands have huge appeal and they make the kids almost literally into classic superheroes, right? The classic superhero has some kind of – to make the story interesting – some kind of secret or some kind of flaw… But with the superpower, that becomes part of their strength. And that’s what’s going on with these kids.

What do you hope for for the future of e-NABLE?

We would like inexpensive assisted technologies to be available at little or no cost to anyone who needs them. And we think we can help by using what turns out to be probably tens or even hundreds of thousands of high tech humanitarian tech savvy volunteers to create new solutions and to create new delivery channels and then either give them away or just show that there are markets here that are ready for development.

I think that there are two wonderful sides to that. One is that people who need these things – and in particular underserved populations that industry and government has neglected – get their solutions. Plus, it’s a whole new way where people who have something to give get to make contact with, in a very real and satisfying way, people who need help.

And the people who need help then become people with something to give. And then in some cases we have recipients who are now becoming new hand makers using their new hands to make hands for other people. When we give these hands to kids I like to say, “Now remember, with great hands come great responsibility. This time you’re getting a hand, but next year you’re probably going to get a 3-D printer, and we’d like you to use your superpowers for good.”