Inspiring Entrepreneurial Story: Invention for Amputees Develop by a Novice

Katherine Bomkamp, now 20, with the Pain Free Socket, which relieves phantom limb pain for amputees. She came up with the idea while in high school.

Here’s a great story about entrepreneurship. It also reminds one of what anyone can do if they just apply themselves. In a recent article by Nicole Laporte (“Don’t Know How? Well, Find Someone Who Does” in the November 26th 2011 New York Times) we read about Katherine Bomkamp, a 20-year-old who has developed a prosthetic device, the Pain Free Socket, that is intended to ease phantom limb pain in amputees.

In her second year at West Virginia University, she started working on the device when in high school. What is exciting and motivational about her story is that, according to Laporte she

has acquired a new set of mentors in the school’s entrepreneurship program. She has set up her own company and is working on third and fourth-generation prototypes. These will have smaller, more compact electronic boards and will be able to be operated by a mobile phone.

In the meantime, she has applied for a patent, and the device will be tested. She is also in talks with a domestic prosthetic company about licensing the rights to sell the device, which is subject to the approval of the Food and Drug Administration. She hopes to receive a small percentage in royalties from future sales.

Otherwise, she’s just an ordinary college kid — sort of.

“I definitely don’t have the typical college student life,” she says. “But at the same time, I do. I still worry about tests and getting scholarship money. But yet I’m a C.E.O., and I’ve got this project and I go on business trips. I walk the line between the two.”

The device, now awaiting a patent, works by applying heat to the amputee’s joint socket through thermal biofeedback. The theory is that as the nerve endings are warmed, the brain is forced to focus on the heat rather than send signals to the absent limb. At the time, she had no background in chemical or electrical engineering.

“It was all completely foreign to me. I had no interest in engineering before this,” said Ms. Bomkamp, who was a criminal-justice major at her magnet high school in Maryland. In college, she’s studying political science, with plans to attend law school.

Her experience shows how ambition, persistence and an ample supply of curiosity can lay the groundwork for achieving breakthroughs, even technological ones. (A bit of youthful pluck helps, too.) It also shows that drawing on other people’s experience and resources is often as good as, if not better than, doing everything yourself.

Politicians know this. Business leaders like Steve Jobs knew this. And yet, when we think of inventors, we think of a solitary soul hunkered down in a basement lab for weeks or months before emerging to claim an unshared victory.

To this, Ms. Bomkamp would say: think again.

The seeds for the Pain Free Socket were sown when Ms. Bomkamp, whose father is a disabled Air Force veteran, found herself in waiting rooms at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center — the hospital in Washington, D.C., that has since closed — seated among wounded soldiers just back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them were amputees.

“They would tell me their stories, and phantom pain kept coming up,” she said. She started researching the condition and learned that “most amputees are prescribed antipsychotics and barbiturates, which are expensive and have high addiction rates.”

“So I wanted to see if I could eliminate the need for those drugs holistically,” she said.

An opportunity to pursue her idea came when her chemistry teacher announced a school science fair. Wanting to “do something meaningful that impacted the community,” she said, she decided to work on a device to treat phantom pain.

“My thought process was: When I pull a muscle, I apply heat to it. If I applied the same concept to treating phantom pain, I thought that could work.”

The only problem was execution. Ms. Bomkamp was the furthest thing from a math or science geek; there was no way she could do this alone. So she began e-mailing engineering professors at universities in the area and asking them for assistance. “They were all very receptive,” she said. “They all invited me to come work in their labs. I chose the University of Maryland because it was closest to my house.”

And so, every Friday, she would take the day off school — with permission — and her mother would drive her to College Park. There, she worked with Professor Gilmer L. Blankenship in the department of electrical and computer engineering, and his lab manager, Jay Renner. “They taught me electrical engineering from the bottom up — electrical programming, heat wiring,” she said. “Basically, everything, they had to teach me.”

They helped her build a prosthetic socket as the first prototype; heated socks used by hunters served as the gadget’s heat source.

But engineering was only half the battle. Ms. Bomkamp wanted to expand her invention and build a prosthetic limb. Who would build it — and not charge her $15,000, the typical cost of an artificial leg?

Again, she resorted to grass-roots outreach, printing the names of prosthetics companies she found on the Web site of the Amputee Coalition of America, and making calls. “A lot of people hung up on me, saying, ‘This won’t work, you’re just a kid, don’t waste my time,’ ” Ms. Bomkamp said.

Finally, she reached Jake Godak, who at the time was working at Cascade, an orthotic and prosthetic supply company in Chico, Calif., and remains a consultant in prosthetics. “He said this could really work, and so he built sockets and a leg for me,” she said. “I still work with him.”

In the second-generation prototype, the heated socks were replaced by ribbing cable, and the electronics were such that the amputee could control the temperature of the socket.

The device “appears to be a very promising prototype for one of the possible ways for amputees to deal with phantom pain,” said Joe McTernan, director of coding and reimbursement, education and programming at the American Orthotic Prosthetic Association. “This certainly is interesting and intriguing research, “he said, adding: “But it is, as far as I can see, currently very much a prototype.”

I am continually inspired by what people can accomplish if they rid themselves of their inhibitions and negative thoughts, and simply grind forward.

If you’re interested in assessing your own entrepreneurial drive, here’s a post on an entrepreneurial self-assessment: Test your entrepreneurship.

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