for Adaptive Athletes
Industrial design grads enter a niche market, creating prosthetics for dogs (and, yes, even a duck).
Waddles, a duck born with a deformed leg, would often get outhustled for food anytime his owner threw out worms for his flock of 30 to eat.
“It’s a full mosh pit, and he got trampled,” says Ben Weinman, a musician who heads up an animal sanctuary. “There were certain things he couldn’t keep up with.”
For help, Weinman turned to Bionic Pets, the subject of the BYUtv show “Wizard of Paws” and one of the handful of companies worldwide that specialize in constructing custom-made prosthetics for animals.
Bionic Pets owner Derrick Campana has created over 25,000 devices since starting his Sterling, Va.-based company in 2004. He mainly helps dogs with a variety of injuries and chronic conditions, but occasionally works with untraditional pets, including ducks like Waddles, to allow for greater mobility and improve their quality of life.
And that’s where Campana relies on Jefferson industrial design alumni Adam Hecht and Alexander Tholl for intricate 3D printing jobs with heartwarming results.
“I didn’t think I would get emotional about this,” says Weinman, who was nearly brought to tears on BYUtv after seeing Waddles walk with his bright orange prosthetic leg for the first time. “I’m so excited.”
Hecht and Tholl also have a special connection with this special duck—one of the dozens of projects they’ve completed with Campana (and many more in the pipeline).
“That was our absolute favorite so far,” Tholl says. “Waddles is the best. I don’t think anyone ever thinks they will create a prosthetic for a duck, aside from Derrick, but here we are. We definitely let out screams of joy when we got the video of him walking for the first time.”
The two 2019 graduates instantly hit it off as freshmen at Jefferson after partnering at evoHaX, an accessibility-themed hackathon, to build a tool that turns a person’s finger into a screen reader. Their team won the competition, and they got to pitch their concept at an area entrepreneurship expo.
“That sparked something between us,” Tholl says. “We both knew we wanted to help others.”
From there, they continued working on class projects together, attending networking events, completing internships, doing freelance work and participating in other competitions, including the University’s Top Ram.
Their mutual motivation and drive persisted throughout college and, as seniors, they founded DiveDesign with support from Jefferson’s Blackstone LaunchPad, industrial design faculty and the career services center.
Now with clients around the country, their North Jersey-based business specializes in design research and strategy, industrial design, prototyping, engineering, UX/UI design, web development and brand development.
“We bootstrapped this entire company,” Tholl says. “We were profitable in the first year. It’s been a whirlwind.”
Every Dog Has Its Day
While successful from the start, DiveDesign’s true major break came when a friend of Hecht and Tholl introduced them to Campana. The friend had worked with Campana before; however, he needed to step away, and in doing so, he gave the alumni a glowing referral.
The two immediately impressed Campana after visiting his Virginia facility, and they began working together late last year.
We definitely let out screams of joy when we got the video of Waddles walking for the first time. —Alexander Tholl
“I’ve had hundreds of 3D printing companies contact me over the years,” Campana says, “but their youth, their hunger and being a one-stop-shop made them shine.”
Campana’s traditional method for creating animal prosthetics involves several steps. First, he sends a casting kit to the owners for them to make a perfect mold of their pets’ bodies. Once Campana receives it, he fills it with plaster of paris to create a positive mold. Then, he hand sculpts the mold, vacuum forms the material, cuts and smooths it out and adds the attachments.
The whole fabrication takes about three hours for the typical dog, but the time stretches for larger animals, such as llamas and sheep, and smaller ones, like Waddles.
“That’s where 3D printing really comes in,” says Campana, noting the DiveDesign partnership allows them all to help more clients in a shorter time. “These animals are in such need, and I really need these guys.”
After Hecht and Tholl collect the molds from the owners, they take a 3D scan with an iPad. Next, an algorithm they developed determines how the prosthetic will most comfortably fit the animal’s body. Once the 3D printer constructs the device—which can take 12 to 18 hours depending on the size—the two smooth out the mold and attach straps and mounting poles, which adds another two hours to the job.
They call the process relatively straightforward today, but laugh about the trial-and-error process it required to get to this point. In fact, they have a wall of failed prototypes in their shop.
“We couldn’t find a material that wouldn’t break,” Tholl explains. “We tried every single industrial material—polycarbonate, ABS. Finally, we used this TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) laying around. We thought it would be too soft, but it was perfect. It flexes, but doesn’t break, and moves with the animals.”
It’s a dream. In middle school, I wanted to have my own firm doing prosthetics. I couldn’t be happier. —Adam Hecht
About a third of DiveDesign’s business now comes from Bionic Pets, and they even appeared on Campana’s show for a behind-the-scenes segment.
In November, “Wizard of Paws” spent a day filming in their Boonton, N.J., studio for an episode where they worked with a chihuahua named Turbo Roo who was born without his front two legs.
The pair often hears from pet owners they’ve helped, one of the more rewarding parts of their career path years in the making.
“We love it when we get a call or tagged on an Instagram post of a dog—or a duck—walking on one of our prosthetics,” Hecht says. “We send it around to everyone. It’s a dream. In middle school, I wanted to have my own firm doing prosthetics. I couldn’t be happier.”