Innovating the Future
Student entrepreneur starts nonprofit prosthetics company.
story: sean yu design: kirthana vasanth photo: aaron westbrook
Pictured above is a project team from Form5's annual workshop, a 4-day workshop weekend where individuals limb differences collaborate and fabricate prosthetics with a team of student engineers and industry professionals.
Even though Aaron Westbrook was just like any other energetic teenager going through high school, there was one notable difference that set him apart from his peers: Westbrook was born with one hand. Westbrook, a second-year marketing student at the Fisher College of Business, was 14 years old when he received the prosthetic hand that would end up changing his life.
“I went my entire life [up to that point] not knowing anyone like me,” Westbrook recalled. “I never had a stable community or support group to turn to when dealing with any issues related to living with one hand.”
That would all change in the months leading up to his first year of high school as he connected with other people with limb differences and the broader limb-different community. This prosthetic hand of his served as Westbrook’s gateway into a community that included the 2.1 million people living with limb differences in the U.S.
There was just one problem. The prosthesis was heavy, unwieldy and downright archaic. It was attached to his right arm, filling up the space of a forearm and hand, but was entirely cosmetic and offered almost no real functionality. And so, within a year of receiving that initial hand, Westbrook began designing his own prosthetic hand.
Founding Form5 Prosthetics
“Form5’s mission is simple: We want to empower people to successfully interact with the world and their future,” said Westbrook.
Even though Form5 was formally established in 2017, Westbrook’s vision for the organization and its potential impact were established much earlier. Since receiving his first prosthetic hand, Westbrook had been active in designing and creating his own prosthesis while he attended New Albany High School in Columbus. Thanks to his school’s recently acquired 3D printers, he was able to create more specialized prosthetic components. For his final senior year high school project, Westbrook created a prosthetic arm made of recycled materials for what would be Form5’s first unofficial recipient, a seven-year-old girl who was also born with one hand.
“I knew from the moment I made my own arm that I wanted to provide this [opportunity] to other people,” said Westbrook. “I wanted to give back to and be a part of the limb-difference community.”
Form5 was created with a limb-difference community focus in mind. The organization aims to increase awareness of people with limb differences and better align prosthesis technology with the community’s unique needs. Through Form5, Westbrook hopes to help people with limb differences create prosthetics that are both practical and accessible—two qualities that he found to be severely lacking in his own initial experiences with prosthetics.
“A lot of the time, people with limb differences may need different devices to do different things,” Westbrook said. “Prosthetics need to be reinvented and we also need to reinvent the process of how people receive them.”
"There is so much possibility in seeing a difference—a disability—as an ability ”
Spearheading innovation in prosthetics
Fostering personal creativity in the prosthesis fabrication process is an important principle in Form5’s operations. In November 2019, the organization hosted its inaugural workshop known as CO-FAB, a four-day event that partnered people with limb differences alongside engineers, designers and healthcare workers to create innovative and customized prosthetics. The workshop paired five recipients with unique new prosthetics, including one custom prosthetic to be used for cycling in Pelotonia.
By providing people with limb differences an active role in the design and creation of their own prosthetics, Westbrook hopes that events like CO-FAB will break down the technological and communication barriers between them and their healthcare providers. Due to the success of the most recent CO-FAB, Form5 is already hard at work planning the 2020 edition of this event and beyond.
“What I’ve found over the past seven years or so [in the limb-difference community] is that there is no innovation in upper limb prosthesis,” Westbrook said. “The CO-FAB workshop wants to pioneer ways for people with limb differences to ideate, collaborate and fabricate the next generation of prosthetics. We [in the limb-difference community] know better than anyone else what we need. So why not, as an organization, provide the tools and resources for the community to accomplish anything it can imagine?”
At the end of the day, producing those resources and opportunities for people to achieve their dreams is Westbrook’s most important goal through Form5. Like others in the limb-difference community, Westbrook acknowledges the fact that they all live in a “two-handed world.” Nevertheless, he wholeheartedly believes that this community holds the potential to change that status and drive the field of prosthesis to greater heights.
Leading the limb-difference community
“In the past, [there have been] a lot of things that I’ve let stop me from doing what I wanted to do,” said Westbrook. “However, as a robust community of people with limb differences, we can really show the next generation of people with limb differences what they are capable of by leading by example and inspiring them. I want to be that [role model] and start that.”
Although Westbrook admits that leading a nonprofit organization as a college student is not always the most relaxing situation, there is nothing else he would rather be doing. His personal message to the limb-difference community is the same as that of Form5’s: Keep driving the future forward.
“There is so much possibility in seeing a difference—a disability—as an ability,” Westbrook said. “There is so much power in that. Unlocking that mindset is something we’re working towards. We want to allow people to do what they love, to chase after things and to try new things that they didn’t think they were able to do before.”
“There is no better time than now to do things that other people think is impossible.”