Innovation in the rhythm of jazz
Unlike businesses with a hierarchical structure, the innovative prosthetic solutions company ProsFit does not function as an orchestra, but more like an informal jazz band. Its co-founder and CEO, Alan Hutchison, believes he is not the classical conductor of scripted performance, but rather a member of a group of experimenting musicians.
Hutchison himself is a saxophonist and his hobby has convinced him that innovation is born within an environment that encourages experimentation, and where no one is afraid that something will go wrong.
This approach is the modus operandi of ProsFit, the Bulgarian company that has improved the fitting of prosthetic sockets. The role of the socket is to act as the interface between an amputated leg or arm, and a new artificial limb that replaces it and restores mobility.
"We are like group of jazz musicians improvising together. If the trumpet player falls behind, the trombone man elegantly comes to the fore and takes things in a whole new direction" said Alan Hutchison, 62, adding that his son Christopher, 29, who is ProsFit's Technical Director, also plays this form of music as his hobby. He plays the piano and sings.
Father and son Hutchison invite the Forbes team to a room of about 60 square meters, which is attached to the main office. This is a meeting room that also serves as a clinic, where all the necessary 3D scans, tests and meetings with patients can be conducted. Next to the entrance we see an autographed photo of the American saxophonist Ben Webster. "A friend gave it to me because he found something in common in our styles. However, Webster left me the message that one should always be original, and not copy others. It's good to try different things, and find yourself and what suits you," says Alan Hutchison. It's not just in the music World where uniqueness matters. In business, this is one of the biggest advantages, and Hutchison knows it well. ProsFit is a company that does not align with how the incumbents do business in its sector, but chooses to disrupt to improve end-user benefits, a somewhat harder way.
"We are a disruptive company, and we are determined to really help those over 35 million amputees who need us. Over 75% of them do not have access to prosthetics. Our goal is to reach them," said Alan Hutchison.
To make this happen, between 2014 and 2020, ProsFit went through five rounds of funding and raised € 4 million. The Bulgarian venture capital fund LAUNCHub participated in the first round. Subsequent rounds included international and local private investors.
Hutchison is also finding support from internationally established brands - technology giant HP, Toyota the leader in the automotive industry, and the largest manufacturer of chemicals BASF. With them, the small Bulgarian innovator launched three very different projects to support its development.
When we look at the revenues of BGN 335 thousand for 2020 (doubled in 2021), ProsFit still looks like it’s at the beginning of its business scale up. The reason for this is the conservatism of the health sector and all the necessary efforts to develop and produce a medical device. The market is not big, but this does not bother the two Hutchison. It is the challenge of serving amputees that prompted them to launch ProsFit.
In July 2009, Christopher Hutchison suffered a severe train accident in Switzerland, where he was born and raised. He miraculously survived because on the same day at the hospital that received him, a conference was being held with some of the best doctors in the world. However, both of his legs had to be amputated.
Recovery after surgery was slow. After a few months, he left the hospital and decided to adopt prostheses in order to return as much as possible to his previous life. Then he was faced with a long-standing lack of improvement in prosthetic sockets, made from a plaster cast of the amputated limb, and with a chance of fitting first time of 50 to 50. The sockets themselves are heavy and rigid, so when the legs swell (for example when flying in an airplane), they create discomfort for the amputee, and can cause severe pain.
"I was lucky to live in a country with very developed healthcare. However, this did not apply to prosthetic fitting. I wondered, if this is the level in Switzerland, then what is it like in the rest of the world," said Christopher Hutchison.
Luckily, with his father, they turned out to be the right team to find a solution. Alan Hutchison is an Oxford engineer. Unlike Rowan Atkinson (we know him as Mr. Bean), with whom he shares the same degree, but two years apart, after graduation Hutchison did not want to become an actor, but simply to stay at the university for a while. This was because of his active jazz band. That's why he started working as research assistant in the engineering department. The professor he helped was involved in the development of a new generation of knee implant.
Hutchison's work in 1981 involved the use of many technologies, and although prosthetic sockets may not seem to have anything to do with implants, his previous experience has helped. "Back then, we created innovation using computer technologies, which were slow relative to today. When we decided to start ProsFit I was surprised that no-one was using such digital approaches for the design and manufacturing of sockets. I did not understand how this was possible. Computers are here, available, faster and more accurate than ever. Let's just use them."
In 1986 Alan Hutchison moved from the UK to pursue a master's degree in Switzerland. There he met his wife, settled down and over the years has held management positions in various companies.
After the incident with Christopher, the life of the Hutchison family changed completely, with many challenges. One of them was that they did not receive much support from the local community. "The Swiss strive for perfection. They didn't know how to treat us and just backed off at one point, says Christopher Hutchison. However, family friends from Bulgaria came to Switzerland to support us.” This meant a lot to the family and little by little the idea of moving to Bulgaria took shape. Today they say that this is the best decision they have made.
They choose to start over in Sofia in 2012. At that time the startup ecosystem in our country was in its infancy, the environment was business friendly and there were all the necessary prerequisites for innovation. However, Hutchison's original motivation was not to start a business, simply to develop a new approach to prosthetic fitting to address Christopher’s constant discomfort.
However, as they got into the subject they realized that there are millions of amputees in the world who are not being fitted with anything. They also needed prostheses, or were suffering pain, preventing them from leading a normal life.
As the idea for ProsFit matured, Christopher Hutchison decided to share his story by starring in the X Factor TV show in Bulgaria. He didn't speak the language then, but says it didn't stop him. He went through the initial castings as a singer and pianist. He calmly talked about what happened in Switzerland and showed that the will is stronger than the circumstances beyond our control.
With this spirit and after an investment of 160 thousand euros of personal funds in 2014, father and son created the first prosthetic socket of a new generation. During its design and production, the amputated limb is scanned using a 3D scanner, then rectifications are performed on the 3D model. Through this the socket becomes more comfortable for the patient. The final product is produced using a 3D printer. The whole process from the patient's first visit to the clinic to the receipt of the prosthesis can be optimized, and take from three to five days.
For comparison - "the traditional plaster casting method can take weeks, sometimes months, due to the iterative nature of the design process, and the constant building in of error. Also, the sockets are 100% non-recyclable. Our product is recyclable and is 50% cheaper,” says Alan Hutchison. According to him, the difference in price is possible thanks to the reduced human labor. With the new technology, two meetings with the patient are needed, or a total of three hours. The first is for scanning, and the second - for fitting the assembled prosthesis. In 90% of the cases the sockets fit the first time they are put on.
In 2015 and 2016, Prosfit had already hired two additional people and were working with them to improve its PandoFit software. The company adopted a subscription model for its use by clinics. It costs 200 euros per month, can be used for an unlimited number of patients and gives access to everything you need - a library of design templates, options for modification, and storage of biometric data collected by 3D scanners.
Hutchison soon certified his final product as a medical device. Then their first client appeared - a clinic from Great Britain. Then they set foot in France, Finland, Singapore and Australia.
In 2017, they started training their clients online. "In the first year, our training sessions were designed to last for two days and we flew to each of the clinics we worked with. However, our system was very intuitive and after the first two or three hours there someone would say "We understood everything. And what are we going to do in the next day and a half?” says Christopher Hutchison.
After ProsFit’s customers had fitted around 250 amputees, a solid proof of concept, they sought contact with Toyota. They decided that the company could help them because of its 2014 policy of “not just being a car company, but one that supports mobility." The concept aligned perfectly with that of ProsFit and in 2019 they started a collaboration. Through it, the two companies aim to implement “Distributed Care” and make prosthetic clinics smaller and more easily deployed.
"The prosthetic clinic can be anywhere. It can also be mobile and serve communities that do not have access to such facilities or are currently in military conflict," says Hutchison about the joint program with the Toyota Mobility Foundation. In Bulgaria, ProsFit has also involved the specialized prosthetic center Sofimed in the project.
In addition to Toyota, ProsFit also started collaboration with the giant in the chemical industry BASF. The German-based company is supporting them to develop new socket families. Thanks to new materials, these are much more flexible and give a sense of balance. They named the first new product ProsFit Flex. HP is also helping them. With its 3D printers and Hutchison's knowledge, the two companies are able to achieve much higher product quality and improve production times. This helps the partners to achieve the goal to offer prosthetic sockets on all continents within three to five days.
With the support of the three giants, the ProsFit team optimizes design and production solutions for below-knee and above-knee amputation. "It was only at the end of 2018 that we told ourselves that we were ready to start scale-up. The previous five years had only been a preparation for our true entry into the market," said Alan Hutchison, adding that" it's not a long time for innovation in MedTech or healthcare. "
For the next two years, they continued to work steadily with customers to fit amputees with prosthetics that allowed them to move calmly and painlessly.
Shortly afterwards, the pandemic began and doctors working with amputated patients went to the front lines in COVID wards. This made it difficult for ProsFit to grow and the company used its valuable time to increase its development speed, and build additional relationships with corporations.
ProsFit is now planning to enter the US market. There, small and potentially mobile PandoPoint digital clinics will be at the heart of the strategy.
Hutchison doesn't seem to be worried about the health crisis. Even instead of discussing it, they suggest we talk more about music. So, Forbes' meeting with ProsFit ends with a video from the company's off-site team building session. In that video, Alan Hutchison plays the saxophone, and his colleagues have fun around him. The mission to help as many amputees as possible to gain mobility unites the ProsFit team, just as the love of music unites jazz bands.
To read the original article by Eneya Gorgieva in Forbes Bulgaria Magazine (December 2021) please click here.