Company looks to market lower-cost bionic arms

Fourteen-year-old Annika Emmert was born without part of her right arm, and often struggled with being different.

"I've always gotten stares, I've always gotten comments," she said.

But when she was 10 years old, she got a prosthetic arm that changed her life.

"All my friends were like 'oh my gosh, I want one, where can i get one? that thing is so cool.' They would shake my hand, they would give me high fives," she said.

This was not any prosthetic. It was a bionic arm: lightweight, made of 3-D printed plastic, blue with bright pink flowers and sensors that allowed her to actually use the hand.

"I was coming back from the library in 5th grade and I was wearing it," she recalled. "And I  was carrying a book with two hands and that's something i wasn't able to do before."

Amazingly, Emmert's family, who'd previously purchased expensive, barely-functional prosthetics didn't have to pay for the bionic arm.

"We have a free arm that's gorgeous, that works, that my daughter's proud of," said Karon Emmert, Annika's mother. "It gave us hope for her and for her future of happiness."

It came courtesy of engineer Albert Manero and his non-profit Limbitless Solutions. Karon connected with him after reaching out to a numerous others who design prosthetics and he agreed to work with Annika. The Emmerts, who were living in the San Diego area, flew to Florida to meet with him.

Manero, an engineer, started Limbitless Solutions five years ago. He was inspired to get into the field after hearing a radio interview on the topic. He's since created arms for about 40 kids in partnership with the University of Central Florida and his work has garnered the attention of Bill and Melinda Gates and the United Nations.

"We really wanted to focus on being able to give that independence and the ability to interact with the world around you," Manero said of his mission.

He also wanted to get away from traditional-looking prosthetics.

"What we found in talking to families, is that the [traditional] doll-plastic design makes a lot of people feel like they're apologizing for being broken, so we went in a completely different direction."

Think bright colors and interchangable plastic covers, many inspired by superheroes.

"Everytime I wear it, I feel so powerful," said Emmert, of her arm, which she's now had for four years and is starting to outgrow. Limbitless Solutions is in the process of designing a new one for her.

Limbitless Solutions' bionic arms are now undergoing a one-year clinical trial. Manero says the hope is the technology will get FDA approval, which would enable the organization to reproduce the limbs at a cost of under $5,000, which would make them eligible for full insurance coverage for many families who need them.