The Makers who dream about low-cost healthcare solutions

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Take the complex machine that is the American health care system, a Vietnam veteran, a high need for implants, and a handful of overused words like “shared,” “bottom-up,” and “horizontal.” Add one 3D printer. What emerged from that mix was not the plot of a bad science fiction novel, but the Health Maker Lab, a Brooklyn-based laboratory established with the sole aim of producing low-cost prostheses and medical instruments.

The concept of the Health Maker Lab, developed about a year and a half ago, is somewhere between a start-up and a political collective. It’s the product of a like-minded group of 3D-printing enthusiasts who found each other – as many American activists do – through the online platform meetup.com. Launched last December, when the Lab finally received permission to operate from the Federal and Drug Administration (the American authority that regulates food and pharmaceutical products on the market), Health Maker Lab today has about forty members, of which ten are active contributors.

What differentiates Health Maker Lab from other 3D print shops is its fundamentally political approach: “Our objective is to overhaul the existing relationship between the 1% and 99% of the population,” admits Land Grant, founder of Health Maker Lab.

At 65, with a vague resemblance to Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose, Land Grant is a unique character, and not only for his name. Until a few years ago, he was doing something completely different. “I have a degree in English literature and went to Brown University, but then they called me to go and fight in Vietnam. I am a hero of that war,” he says somewhat ironically, “even though they actually sent my department to a base in Germany.” He tells me how for years his job was to sell American products in Europe and Asia. “My interest in 3D printing only started four years ago when I happened to go to the World Maker Fair – a large makers fair that takes place every year here in New York – and I realized that it had huge potential in the medical field. From there I tried to create a group that handled these kinds of things,” he explains. The key concept launched by Grant and other members of Health Maker Lab is to use the 3D printer to produce low cost biomedical devices in order to democratize the American health care system: a prosthesis made using a 3D printer can cost around $150-200 as opposed to the $24,00-25,000 that traditional versions costs. In a country that spends about 17% of its GDP on health – albeit with disastrous results –he understands the impact that 3D printing could have. “We are looking at an almost infinite range of possibilities," marvels Grant, and “this allows us to question the entire health care system as it has been organized until now.”

The Health Maker Lab follows the DIY principle, in which everyone can learn from other makers and experiment with their own ideas. An attitude which curiously Grant attributes to none other than Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb (as well as many other things, including the electric chair) who spent a lifetime learning on his own. “Many of the scientific discoveries of the last century were made by amateurs like Thomas Edison,” says Land Grant when we meet at a small park in Dumbo, the technology district at the northern tip of Brooklyn. “What they had were ideas and hard work. And in relation to them, we have the advantage of technology, the ability to divide tasks [between ourselves]. Here, my dream is that one day someone will take inspiration from our idea, so that there will be systems that provide low cost medical devices in every city.”

Situated under the Brooklyn Bridge and across from Manhattan, Dumbo is a former industrial area. Until the ‘90s , the neighborhood was working-class, but as artists left Manhattan to escape rising rental prices, the district began to gentrify and old warehouses from the industrial period were rented out at bargain prices to house lofts, workshops and creative hubs. Today, Dumbo is one of the most expensive areas of New York and its ex-warehouses make up what is known as the “technology triangle of Brooklyn,” home to some 1,300 companies and startups, including Health Maker Lab.

This said, what distinguishes Health Maker Lab from its peers is not only the political aspect of the project, but also the desire to create a community of people who can actively collaborate. “One of the biggest problems in the US is the fact that it is an overly capitalist society where there is too much emphasis on profit,” says Grant, “this also applies to the world of 3D printing.” About 40% of all companies in the field of 3D printing for medical applications are American. In 2015 alone, the sector generated a profit of $380 million. But experts predict this is only the beginning, and the profits in the field of 3D printing for medical purposes will reach the billion dollar mark by 2022.

In contrast, the ethos of Health Maker Lab is closer to that of the “citizen scientist,” a model developed by researchers from Leeds University, where ordinary citizens help researchers to catalog the huge amount of data collected in order to speed up the scientists’ work. Grant seeks to bring this same concept to Health Maker Lab: “subjects such as medicine, biology and neuroscience touch on social and political issues, and that is why today, anyone – within the limits of their personal capacity – can contribute to scientific research. We no longer need to worry about the ‘guardians of science’ who seek to render knowledge elite. We do something else. We are a non-profit group and our aim is to put science at the service of citizens.”

It is hard to say if the Health Maker Lab’s attempt to make the American health system more equitable will be successful. The group is still young and its members do not hide the challenges: “For our experiment to succeed, we need resources, time, people and money. Obviously, money is the hardest part,” admits Grant without hesitation. “But our basic goal remains the same: to redefine the relationship between the 1% and 99%.”

The article was originally published in the Italian Newspaper "Il Manifesto" on June 29, 2016.

Research was made possible by the Transatlantic Media Fellowship Program.  

Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

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