Money makers: Making bionic hands cheaper

Samantha Payne with a bionic arm © Rex Features
Samantha Payne quit journalism to make bionic hands

Samantha Payne, now 26, was a journalist in 2013 when she interviewed robotics engineer Joel Gibbard. His dream was to design robotic hands that amputees around the world could 3D-print in their own homes. She was so inspired by the idea she launched Open Bionics with him. Bionic hands with multi-grip functionality cost up to £60,000. “They’re just too expensive for amputees,” Payne tells Emma Sheppard in The Guardian. Open Bionics aims to bring the cost of a personalised hand down to under £5,000.

“The big innovation, and how we’re saving money, is by changing the materials that prosthetics are made of [and] by using 3D scanning to take the initial fitting,” she says. A deal with Disney has even allowed Open Bionics to design prosthetics for children based on characters from films such as Iron Man and Star Wars. Now the firm is starting a six-month trial with the NHS after winning £100,000 in funding from the Small Business Research Initiatives scheme. “If that goes well… we’ll be offered the chance to apply for £1m grant money to roll the product out across all NHS clinics,” says Payne.

The dropout who worked his way to wealth

A high-school dropout born in a textile factory slum, Bang Jun-hyuk charted an unlikely path to riches in South Korea – a country dominated by family-run conglomerates, says Sam Kim on Bloomberg. In 2000, Bang launched Netmarble Games Corporation with just eight employees, producing video games for mobile phones.

The gamble paid off. Last month the company raised 2.7trn won (£1.8bn) at its initial public offering (IPO), valuing Netmarble at 13trn won. Bang, who owns just under a quarter of the shares, is now worth around £2.3bn. Having left Netmarble to buy a stake in a local coffee house chain, Bang later returned to save the company, inviting comparisons with Steve Jobs.

Less flattering was the nickname bestowed by the press – “the torturer” – for his uncompromising attitude to hard work. An outcry over the deaths of three workers last year led to holidays for working overtime and a ban on overnight updates. But as Bang has pointed out in the past, says Kim, hard work is what a man without ties to the rich, politically powerful, or a prestigious school has to do to make a splash in Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.

Nursing a nappy-maker through the crisis

During the financial crisis Guy and Jo Schanschieff sold their family home and laid off four staff to save Bambino Mio, says Laura Onita in The Sunday Times. Sales at the cloth-nappy maker, based in the Northamptonshire village of Brixworth, had dived by a third to £1.3m. So they gambled on finding a bigger audience by expanding onto the high street.

The Schanschieffs founded Bambino Mio in 1997 as a mail-order firm selling brightly coloured cloth nappies that feature Velcro-style and popper fastenings instead of safety pins, and can be washed at 40°C. Sales grew slowly at first; in 2001, the business made an £87,000 loss on sales of £777,000. However, following deals with Aldi, Waitrose and Boots, the firm has now grown to make pre-tax profits of £650,000 on sales of £3.2m last year, selling to countries around the world, including America, France and South Africa. Revenues are expected to hit £5m in 2017. Guy Schanschieff’s advice to entrepreneurs? Don’t give up. “You will go through a lot of years thinking, ‘Am I going to make it’,” he says. “But [the] time and effort in the early days certainly pays off later.”

An improbable success story – and a “Microsoft-scale opportunity”

Herman Narula, the son of an Indian billionaire construction tycoon, and Rob Whitehead, got chatting about video games at Cambridge University. After they both graduated, Whitehead moved into the Narula family’s 19th-century estate in Hertfordshire. “We ended up coding, prototyping and bringing in about 20 people – it turned into a hothouse of research and development,” Whitehead tells Madhumita Murgia in the Financial Times. The pair raised just over £1m from family and friends, and in 2012 launched a start-up to recreate the real world in a virtual environment –  “such a fiendishly ridiculous” challenge that “we named ourselves Improbable”, says Narula.

The company is building a computer platform called SpatialOS that allows users to build highly detailed virtual worlds, enabling super-detailed simulations (see last week’s cover story). City planners could use the technology to predict how traffic systems would behave in real life, for instance. While still in the development phase, one company is using SpatialOS to simulate a virtual fleet of self-driving cars in London.

Improbable has even used the technology to create a complete simulation of the city of Cambridge, including its sewerage and mobile networks, power grids and road traffic. Investors have been pouring money into Improbable. Last week the Japanese robotics firm Softbank gave it $502m. This marked the biggest-ever venture financing round for a private British company, valuing Improbable at more than $1bn. Considering the potential of SpatialOS to revolutionise design and construction, it’s not hard to see why.

Saul Klein, a partner at venture-capital firm LocalGlobe and Improbable’s earliest institutional investor, believes the technology could be transformational, says Murgia. “Herman’s thesis is that simulation could be steel for the 21st century,” Klein tells Murgia. “If you buy that thesis… every major infrastructure project will require some form of simulation. It sounds nuts, but if you are the platform and operating system, it is an Oracle- or Microsoft-scale opportunity.”