David Sengeh tells me he’ll have to delay our phone interview. “I am sorry to do this but there’s a last minute need for me to attend an Ebola meeting.”
Sengeh is a multi-faceted kind of guy. After all, before he started designing prosthetics, he did vaccine research. He grew up in Sierra Leone, where the Ebola epidemic has been harshest. So the 27-year-old MIT PhD student, biomedical engineer, and inventor doesn’t hesitate to take a few hours away from talking to Techonomy, not to mention writing his dissertation, looking for a job, leading a youth foundation, designing clothes, making music, or playing soccer.
At MIT’s Media Lab, Sengeh designs prosthetics that amputees can wear for extended periods. His designs avoid an otherwise common problem with such devices—constant pain from pressure on the wearer’s remaining tissue. He collaborates with other researchers to write software that uses MRI data to map someone’s limb to learn where artificial materials might painlessly create pressure points. Today, prosthetic wearers typically endure multiple custom fittings and refittings by hand. With his approach, a prosthetic socket could one day be made anywhere you can plug in a 3D printer.
Sengeh’s tools might turn anyone into a kind of Iron Man, manufacturing powerful prosthetics in their garage or their village. He kind of reminds me of Tony Stark himself. That is, if the fictional billionaire do-gooder had dreadlocks, rapped in Krio (a Sierra Leonean language), sold clothes he designed with his mama, and had to defend his thesis by the end of the semester.
Sengeh is part of a research group at the Media Lab that develops technologies to restore mobility to people who have been injured and invents other tools to give ordinary people what amount to physical superpowers. The lab calls this field biomechatronics, which its website defines as combining biology, mechanical engineering, and electronics to “enhance human physical capability.”
“We’re just trying to see how we can create comfortable mechanical devices for the body,” he explains. “We want to get data from anybody around the world and [use it to] design comfortable interfaces for them.” This kind of technology can be used to build lightweight exoskeletons that might eventually help anyone run faster or farther, or lift heavy objects. There’s everyday pressure to make these devices work for people with physical disabilities, too. His PhD advisor, Hugh Herr, is a double amputee and elite rock climber who takes Sengeh’s “homework” with him on weekends to try out.
As a child in Sierra Leone, Sengeh regularly encountered amputees in the wake of that country’s brutal ten-year-long civil war in the 1990s. It displaced half of the population. Rebels used amputation as a weapon of war, intentionally maiming up to 4,000 men, women and children. At least 10,000 more were permanently disabled by wounds and disease. Despite Sierra Leone’s beauty, fertile agricultural land and teeming natural resources, it remains near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. This reality both drives and inspires him.
He says Sierra Leone’s crises and limitations can inspire creative responses. “I feel lucky to have grown up there” he says. He grew up with a constant stream of visitors coming and going in his parents’ home. He was expected to share equally with all of them. “My friends weren’t friends any more, they were brothers. We had to learn to love and respect them in the same way.”
That may help explain why he’s willing to show up for last minute meetings just to listen to others. When asked about the Ebola crisis, he bristles. “I don’t want to be part of the noise. I’m trying to understand the best way to help without being part of the ‘I wanna help, what can I do’ crowd, which never goes anywhere.” So what’s really on your mind, David? “Inaction, people who have a lot of training but don’t do shit. People who are satisfied with the status quo.”
He is not a complacent person. “I want to be better at everything. Every time I’m designing things or helping people or relaxing, I want to be better. I want to be better at rapping. I don’t feel I’m sufficiently good.” Since he published a paper about his prosthetics work he’s already changed the design to remove protruding external braces that provided stability and supported the weight. He has instead integrated carbon fiber materials for strength and lightness and improved the algorithm that calculates where pressure occurs.
Every day during breakfast, Sengeh calls his collaborators on the African youth and innovation project he co-founded called Global Minimum. Its InChallenges program organizes competitions and offers funding for youth-oriented solutions to community problems in Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa. Its InLabs arm develops workshops for invention and prototyping in secondary schools. Sengeh Skypes European colleagues before lunch, plugs away at research in the afternoons and plays a little ping pong in the Media Lab lounge before heading home. His 360° world of collaboration and communication ripples through the cybersphere: a TED talk video, the Global Minimum site, his personal site, a CNN television special, his music on SoundCloud, his Facebook page…
In his TED talk, Sengeh tells a story about a military veteran who tested one of his prosthetics at the Media Lab. As Sengeh tells it, the patient said, “It’s so soft, it’s like walking on pillows, and it’s effing sexy.”
What does a guy like this do next? Something either commercial or academic, perhaps. “But I want to be in the world,” he says. “I don’t want to be stuck in the lab.” He seeks to scale production of his prosthetics but doesn’t know if that means he should commercialize them. In the meantime, “I need to test and validate my design and then do a clinical evaluation of the designs. But I don’t know. It depends on what I do next in my life.”
Sengeh will speak about international development at the Techonomy 2014 conference. This article appears in the 2014 Year-End Edition of Techonomy Magazine.