Two Texas A&M doctorate students utilizing a game-changing technology in 3-D printing to make prosthetic body parts more durable and affordable continue to capture national attention for their work.
Brandon Sweeney and Blake Teipel, who are studying material science and engineering, recently were selected as winners of the first-ever Student Entrepreneurial Pitch Competition at the 2015 Southeastern Conference Symposium in Atlanta for their idea.
"This is an incredible opportunity," said Teipel, a fourth-year doctorate student from Buena Vista, Colorado. "We did not expect to win out of the three finalists. Arkansas and Tennessee already had established products on the market, but the judges felt that we could cue into the potential of such a broad market."
The three-day symposium allowed representatives from 14 SEC-member universities to present ideas dealing with innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship before a panel of alumni judges.
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The pair's pitch earlier this year won first prize at the Raymond Ideas Challenge hosted by the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship at the Mays Business School.
Sweeney, along with Dr. Micah Green, an associate professor in the chemical engineering department at A&M, are accredited to the development of a 3-D printing technology used to create a prosthetic leg.
A 3-D printer constructs objects designed on a computer by building up layers of plastic or wax. The layers are then melted together with an ultraviolet laser to form a solid object, but Teipel said this method is not foolproof.
"If too much pressure is applied to the object, the layers will pull apart like a deck of cards," he said.
Sweeney and Green spent two years perfecting the process of "microwelding" that uses a carbon nanotube coating to more effectively bond the layers together. The coating makes the 3-D printed material 10 times stronger, and it can withstand 35 percent more maximum force than the standard plastic.
Sweeney said he had no specific application for his patented technology until six months ago when he collaborated with Teipel about using it for prosthetics.
"We wanted to apply this to people in general," Sweeney said. "Something human-related that would benefit the common good. Every person is so individual and 3-D printing is well-suited for customizing."
Although 3-D printed prosthetics have been manufactured for three decades, Teipel said they were able to make a stronger more durable leg prosthetic - yet still at a reasonable price.
Since there is a wide range of prosthetic body parts, Teipel estimates their design will cost between $3,000 and $6,000, which is one-tenth of the cost of prosthetics now on the market.
But, Sweeney said, the 3-D prosthetic remains in the prototype stage and won't be available to the public for at least three years. The team will further validate their product with patients of The Center of the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility for amputees and burn victims within the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Next up for the pair is to apply for the Rice Business Plan Competition, the world's largest graduate-level student startup competition, hosted in Houston in the spring. That's where they hope to get more money for the project. In 2014, nearly $3 million was awarded to winners to commercialize their product.
Two additional A&M students were recognized at the symposium: Joey Gabriano, a bugler in the Aggie band, was chosen to perform in the SEC Jazz Ensemble, and Tiffany Sanchez showcased her art piece, "Prey," in the symposium exhibition.