2018-06-14 / Around Town

Conversation with Braden Leonard The 'Hand Made' Journey

By Chris Allen

Braden Leonard is readying himself to go cross country on a film shoot for “Hand: Made,” which is set to be released in 2019. Braden Leonard is readying himself to go cross country on a film shoot for “Hand: Made,” which is set to be released in 2019. If you are in the mood for an inspiring story of overcoming adversity against incredible odds from someone who also uses words like “supination” and “centrifugal clutch,” look no further than Braden Leonard, a self-taught mechanical designer who is trying to speed up progress in a uniquely important field.

The 36-year-old Newport man, who lost his right hand in a 2015 biking accident in Ballard Park after contracting the flesh-eating bacteria from a puncture wound, was dissatisfied with what the modern prosthesis industry had to offer, so he summoned a do-it-yourself ethos and some CAD (computer-aided design) software and got to work.

Most recently he has been working at Autodesk Build Space, a Boston based technology laboratory to test design prototypes. Autodesk accepts start-ups on a competitive basis to use their workspace free of charge. Leonard was accepted and is in the process of building up his company, Hand Made Prosthetics

He is also in the process of putting his long journey for an adequate prosthesis onto the big screen, with the help of producer-director Rocco Michaluk.

The film, currently in production, is titled, “Hand: Made” and is in the midst of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to finance Leonard’s cross-country journey with his father to test out his self-designed “bartender,” a riding attachment he has been developing for those who wear prosthetics and also ride bikes and/ or motorcycles.

The team hopes to raise $20,000 to finance the travel and film expenses. With a scheduled release date of summer 2019, the film aims to shine a light on an industry ripe for revolution, through the prism of one man’s journey. Leonard spoke with Newport This Week about the film, his upcoming cross-country voyage, and the state of the industry he’s working to improve.

What kind of bike will you be using for the road-test design? A Suzuki V Strom 650. My dad has one, too. So, we will have one set of spare parts. We’ll be going off the beaten path.

And you’re going to have a film crew following every mile? Not the whole time. We were planning on doing this already [before the film]. We’re going to ship [our] bikes out to Seattle and head back from there. So west to east. We’ll go for about a month. We want to hit national parks and other things.

How did you hook up with Michaluk? We’re friends. I met him a couple of years ago.

What is the biggest challenge these days for amputees who wish to be maximally active, specifically those with conditions similar to yours? It’s still a bigger problem to solve [for upper-limb amputees] from a technical standpoint, the additional complexity of attaching it to the [upper] body.

In the research we found that the upper-limb population tends to be more active. There hadn’t been a large demanding population for something that is more robust. But since the [Afghanistan and Iraq] wars, in the past 15 years, obviously there has been more investment.

Have you found that people have unrealistic ideas about prosthetics? Definitely. [Current designs] pick up muscle impulses. Every time you use a muscle there is an electrical signal associated with that. They integrate those [signals] in to the socket, [but] they are not strong enough.

How did you become involved with Autodesk Build Space? We heard about their program and we applied. We sent in some drawings and some video. Just stuff we were working on. The Boston space is centered around the AEC field [architecture, engineering and construction]. We [Hand Made Prosthetics] are sort of outside of that field. This is more like a mechanical engineering project.

What’s the Autodesk atmosphere like? Some of the staff there look at [our] stuff and bounce ideas around. It’s pretty informal. It’s definitely a collaborative environment.

Do you miss being a firefighter? They [Johnston Fire Department] are family. I go to their kids’ birthday parties. It was usually generally rewarding. There were bad days too, when [things] would not go right. Even if it was something like carrying someone’s grandmother down the stairs, you have positive effects on a day-to-day basis. That’s not there anymore, that fulfilling sense. When that’s gone it is a noticeable absence.

Have you tried to experience that sense with your current projects? That’s what I’m trying to do now. But the instant gratification is not always there. You pull somebody out of a car and save their life. In a period of an hour, a lot happens. This is a snail’s pace by comparison. You do something, and we’ll see how it goes. [You want] three months to move a project to this point and it takes a year.

How would you sum up “Hand: Made”? The trip is the main theme. It’s the perfect opportunity to test [the designs] out. It’s a major proof statement. I’m cautiously optimistic right now. That’s a lot to put on somebody, [a trip of] 3,500 miles.

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