Aaron Fleming was raised in North Carolina and went to undergrad at NC State for Mechanical Engineering. After graduating, he lived in West Africa for nearly two years before beginning his Ph. D studies in Biomedical Engineering at NC State. Aaron researches lower limb prosthesis control and decided to put his engineering abilities into practice by developing practical technology for amputees. His hobbies include soccer, running, and mainly surviving grad school.
Q: Can describe in a nutshell what OpenGait does?
On the large scale, OpenGait is trying to improve access to prosthetic devices for amputees. In the US, once someone receives an amputation, their residual limb size changes drastically and that doesn’t work very well with the current way sockets are made. As an individual with an amputation goes through their first year, they will need multiple sockets which can be up to 20 visits just for the first year. The time burden is very large on the patient as well as the clinicians. These difficulties are multiplied in low-resource contexts where access to trained clinicians is severely limited. What we are doing is developing a prosthetic socket that can adjust to amputees’ residual limb volume changes over the first year, reducing multiple sockets into one socket that is adjustable by the amputee and prosthetist. By doing this we are able to create a system that can be leveraged for a more low-resource context. We are trying to out the complex fabrication facility, while still empowering clinicians to create a custom-life fit socket.
Q: What inspired you to start this company?
OpenGait originated from the Product Innovation Lab at NCSU. It was there two local prosthetists Brent Wright, and Frank Hodges presented the problem they faced as they try to provide prosthetic devices to amputees in Flores, Guatemala. At the end of the class Lindsay Sullivan, Dustin Prescott and I all decided to really try to continue the work we started that semester. Since then, we have been able to actually go to Guatemala and fit our prosthetic socket there and really see the need for better access to prosthetic sockets. We learned that it is common within these societies for those who are missing limbs are to be unable to participate in their communities like they did before. Ultimately, they must rely more on their families as opposed to being a person who provides for their community. We really want to see the work we have put in positively impact amputees around the world.
Q: What’s your favorite part of being an entrepreneur?
It’s an exciting challenge. You have to consider many aspects in creating a business. Doing structured design projects in a class is fun but you always have someone tell you the problem. I enjoy trying to figure out what people’s real problem is and developing something they will actually use. I think my perspective has changed a lot and I appreciate going through this process. There are so many different things that go into being an entrepreneur – talking to people, developing relationships, trying to ask good questions and all of these things working together. It’s hard getting bored.
Q: Do you have any role models or mentors who have inspired you while you have been building your business?
There’s quite a lot. Tom Snyder is a great role model through the Product Innovation Lab and all the instructors in their own way. Johnathon Bohlmann, Ola Harrysson, Percy Jackson, Frank Hodges, and Brent Wright. Another great role model has been my advisor, He (Helen) Huang, who has pushed me to become a strong researcher, which I think has only helped my work with OpenGait.
Q: Any advice to entrepreneurs?
Talk to people. It really solidifies the problem and the solution people really need. Try not to pigeon hole or try to make something work when it doesn’t fit the needs of the people you’re making it for. Continuously asking questions has given more ideas outside of what we are currently working on.