×

Merging Art with Science: New Startup Allows Amputees to Design Prosthetic Covers

  • Winston Frazer is the founder of Danae Inc., a company that allows lower leg amputees to create custom designs for their prosthetic covers. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS)



The Baltimore Sun
Friday, April 20, 2018

Baltimore — Four years ago, Winston Frazer was a talented artist with more interests than he knew what to do with.

He had changed majors at the Maryland Institute College of Art from photography to painting and sculpture and back, always chasing the “next shining diamond.” He’d recently taken an interest in digital fabrication.

It took traveling to a poor African country to discover his real passion.

Frazer was visiting Sao Tome and Principe, an island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, when he met a number of amputees — a reflection, he said, of the country’s poor health care — and took note that these courageous people seemed to suffer embarrassment over their appearance.

Why not, he wondered, blend his abilities to help them?

Frazer, now 25, is the founder and CEO of Danae Prosthetics, a startup company that allows lower-limb amputees to take part in designing and creating covers for their own prosthetic devices.

Danae offers an app-and-desktop interface users can employ to upload the shape and dimensions of their devices — and then provide whatever design they choose, whether it’s a polka-dot pattern, photos of friends and family or the logo of their favorite sports team.

Frazer and his team then translate that data into computerized blueprints — the templates that will be used in fabricating the covers by way of 3-D printing.

By personalizing the look of devices that too often have an unsightly “medical” appearance, Frazer said, users can normalize physical conditions that otherwise might leave them feeling alienated, or even turn them into strengths.

The company also reflects an idea that has been gaining traction in the burgeoning startup universe: Art and technology can work together in developing ideas for businesses that can make money while serving the larger good.

Stephanie Chin is the former director of a local business incubator and the assistant director of entrepreneurship at MICA, where Frazer earned a degree in painting in 2016.

Chin was a member of the panel that presented Frazer with a $25,000 award in MICA’s highly competitive Up/Start Venture Competition last year — the money he used to found Danae.

She views him as a model for some artists to follow in an increasingly technological age.

“It’s interesting how he’s using his background as a painter and ended up doing 3-D prosthetic covers,” Chin said. “His story is a fascinating narrative about how artists are impacting our community. They don’t just follow the traditional path of going to school, becoming a painter, showing in galleries and having a fine-art practice.

“Winston is a really interesting representation of the modern-day creative entrepreneur,” she said.

One measure of his emerging success is that Frazer, a Germantown, Md. native, is insanely busy.

He runs his five-employee company from the sixth floor of the Wicomico Building, a former industrial warehouse in Pigtown that has been converted into an office building.

Frazer sublets space from Harbor Designs and Manufacturing, a firm that works with innovative companies and individuals to develop new products.

The engineers crisscrossing the huge open space like bees in a hive one recent afternoon are working on everything from cutting-edge medical devices to climate-controlled pet carriers.

Frazer is here because his drive, creativity and openness to new ideas impressed Harbor Designs executives such as vice president Joshua Barnes.

Barnes heard about a 3-D printer Frazer had created and called to see if he could offer any help.

“The printer is causing a bit of a space issue here in my house,” Barnes recalled him saying.

Now that he’s a tenant, Frazer is one of the most visible individuals in the place as he strides about sharing plans and discoveries, seeking and delivering advice, and helping to connect scientists and entrepreneurs inside and outside the building.

“His company is a great idea,” Barnes said. “It’s a relatively simple product to launch. It’s in demand. It doesn’t require a lot of overhead. And he’s a master networker.”

The product itself actually required reaching across boundaries.

Frazier absorbed scientific vibes while growing up in Germantown — a great uncle worked on satellites and an uncle ran his own engineering firm — but also found himself fascinated with photography, drawing and painting.

By the time he was ready for college, he’d done so much work in those areas — and found it so much fun — he figured he might as well apply to MICA.

But fine arts alone couldn’t hold his attention. By his junior year, he was working as a nighttime security guard, and he found himself drifting by the school’s “D-Fab” lab, home to an unusually large collection of 3-D printers and CNC (computer numerical control) machines.

CNC machines can be computer-programmed to drill, saw, lathe and mill materials into finished products, making an automated process out of work that once had to be done by hand.

As he worked with students on their projects, Frazer fell in love with this way of merging the creative and the technological.

“I thought, ‘this is cool, this is fun ... I tried to learn as much as I could before I had to go home” at 2 in the morning,” he said.

The trip to Sao Tome and Principe with a MICA professor came about almost by accident — a junket to Korea had fallen through — but in hindsight it seems to have been the best outcome.

Frazer contracted an intestinal illness during the trip and ended up in the hospital, where he met several amputees and learned their stories.

He was impressed at their tenacity, he said, but touched by the way they felt ostracized in the island culture. He soon learned that amputees all over the world struggle with self-consciousness along with their physical discomfort.

He packaged his idea into a pitch for the inaugural Up/Start contest in 2016 and, having failed to make the final cut, repackaged it for the following year.

Frazer’s proposal for Danae — it’s named for the mother of Perseus in Greek mythology — was one of five that shared $100,000 in winnings provided by a grant from the Philip E. and Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation.

He used the grant to hire core employees, set up office space, work on software and test materials.

Frazer settled on Nylon-12, a polymer whose relatively long hydrocarbon-chain length gives it unusual stability through changes in humidity and temperature.

Whereas most prosthetic covers are made one at a time, Danae’s use of CAD, or computer-assisted design, automates the process, freeing up more of Frazer’s time to work on new products.

He traveled to Dubai in February to take part in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s pavilion at the Arab Health Expo, one of the world’s largest international health care fairs.

And Danae recently won a $50,000 grant from Conscious Venture Lab, a Baltimore business accelerator that backs “companies and leaders who embrace capitalism as a powerful catalyst for good in society.”

Frazer is planning the soft launch of his product line in May, with prosthetic covers retailing at about $900 apiece.

The situation is a far cry from four years ago, when he was still seeking a way to merge his artistic interests.

Now it’s the merger of art and technology that interests him.

“What I’ve learned is that when creative and scientific approaches come together, you’re going to do better, more meaningful work,” Frazer said. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”