It might seem like something straight out of the latest installment of Iron Man. A robotic arm that can be made with a 3-D printer, imparting strength that far surpasses that of any human limb; a bionic skeleton suit, nearly undetectable, that allows people who are paralyzed to walk again.
But instead of seeing them at your local IMAX theater, you’ll find these inventions in the Durango, Colo., offices of Unlimited Tomorrow, where 19-year-old CEO and founder Easton LaChappelle is working with two 20-something colleagues to bring these innovations to the people who need them most.
“We want to impact life in a positive manner as much as possible by providing low-cost functional solutions for disabilities,” LaChappelle says. “There’s a lot of technology out there. No one needs a smartphone to live. Imagine if we took some of the brainpower that’s going into developing smartphones and put it into the medical field instead. It would be a very different world.”
Determined to change lives, LaChappelle is putting, in the words of his company’s mission statement, “users first… focusing on their needs before ours.” He’s made the software for his prosthetic arm open-source, allowing others to freely download it (as some 1,700 people did in the first month it was online) and improve on his designs. Although his company has some funding, including investment from life coach and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, LaChappelle is not drawing a salary. “I don’t need to,” he says. “And being a startup, every penny counts.” He hopes to get his own apartment before he turns 20 in November, but for now he’s still living with his parents.
That detail aside, “he’s more like a 55-year-old CEO of a Fortune 500 company than a teenager,” says Dean Jarvis, 46, a State Farm Insurance agent in Maryville, Tenn., who knows LaChappelle well. A high school basketball star, Jarvis lost his leg above the knee to osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer, when he was 19.
Three years ago, Jarvis founded the Amputee Long Drive golf championship. (It has since become the ParaLong Drive, expanding to include athletes with disabilities of all kinds.) LaChappelle gave a demonstration of his robotic arm at the first tournament, held in Loudon, Tenn., and Jarvis has accompanied him to many events since.
“I’ve heard Easton speak to groups of 12- and 13-year-old kids at Boys & Girls Clubs,” he says, “and I’ve also heard him speak to some of the world’s greatest scientists and engineers, where he’ll kick things up several gears and not miss a beat. He’s as gifted a communicator and a businessman as he is an inventor.”
Growing up in the small farming community of Mancos, Colo., LaChappelle was a gadget geek. “I’ve always loved taking things apart. You’re not supposed to see what’s going on inside, so it’s kind of like solving a mystery.” From the age of 8, he was disassembling electronic toys, toasters, and DVD and VHS players. “Neighbors would leave their old appliances on my front porch,” he says.
In his early teens, LaChappelle went through what he calls his high-voltage stage. He’d take the transformers out of microwave ovens to create electrical versions of Jacob’s ladder, the kind of climbing arc you’ve seen bringing Frankenstein to life in sci-fi flicks. “I was very close to starting a fire in my bedroom and probably close to stopping my heart a few times. I burned my carpet pretty good; that’s when my dad came into my room and dropped off a fire extinguisher.”
Next he turned his attention to robotics. At 14 he used Lego blocks to create a robotic hand that was controlled by fishing wire and electrical tubing.
He reached out to Jeremy Blum, then a Cornell University engineering student who’d already made game-changing innovations in robotics (such as robots that can assemble themselves), to help him print an animatronic arm on a 3-D printer. “Easton is very, very ambitious,” says Blum, who’s now a “hardware astronaut” on the Google Glass team. “He wanted to make something tangible and real, and he wasn’t going to listen to anyone who said he couldn’t do it.”
What drove LaChappelle on these early projects was “boredom and fun,” he says. That changed at a science fair where he met a 7-year-old who had a prosthetic limb from her elbow to fingertips; it cost $80,000, her parents said. “Hearing that was an aha moment,” LaChappelle recalls. “I’d been forced into making my projects for low costs since I was relying on the money I earned from a summer job spraying weeds. But if I could make a full robotic arm for $500, I thought I might be able to make a prosthetic that would help people regain a part of their life for under $1,000.”
Through Jarvis he met amputees who gave him more insight into their needs. “There’s a big psychological element to using a prosthetic,” LaChappelle says. “If you need to focus for five minutes to do a simple task, that’s a huge burden. I talked to people who’d tried advanced prosthetic devices that cost $100,000 and were so difficult to use that after a week they went back to the simple claw prosthetic that they had before.”
Word spread as LaChappelle worked on making his robotic arm more nimble. He was invited to give TEDx Talks and deliver keynote speeches at corporate events and entrepreneurial summits around the world. In 2013 he attended the White House Science Fair where President Obama shook the hand of his robotic arm, and LaChappelle told him about the young girl who had inspired him. That summer he landed a NASA internship and worked on the Robonaut project at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Around this time, LaChappelle received a phone call from Robbins, who had seen one of his Tedx Talks. “I was completely inspired by Easton’s vision and even more so by his ability to execute,” Robbins has said. “I had to connect with him.” Robbins, who has helped many people deal with the psychological trauma of being paralyzed by gun violence, was especially interested in LaChappelle’s new endeavor: creating a lightweight exoskeleton suit—basically a wearable robot—that would allow paraplegics to walk.
Robbins and LaChappelle made plans to start Unlimited Tomorrow when Easton turned 18. That weighed heavily in his choice to forgo college after high school graduation in 2014. “It was a big decision,” LaChappelle says. “I didn’t think I could balance the company and college at the same time. And I had all these ideas I’d been researching for years. I couldn’t afford to be four years behind the technology; it moves too fast.” What’s more, he was impatient to make progress on the exoskeleton. A close high school friend, Brett, had been paralyzed in a car accident when he was thrown from the backseat through the windshield. LaChappelle was eager to give him an alternative to a wheelchair.
Some versions of exoskeleton suits already exist, but they’re bulky, heavy and expensive. “What we want to do is make an exoskeleton so thin you can wear it underneath your clothing and no one will know you have it on,” LaChappelle says. “Plus, the prototype we’re developing will be easy to adjust; our vision is that you’ll be able to order it on Amazon, take it out of the box, and in a couple of minutes, you’ll be up and walking.”
LaChappelle is savvy about his business plan for Unlimited Tomorrow. He sees educational, industrial, and police and military applications in his robotic inventions. (While he doesn’t want to weaponize the exoskeleton or robotic arm, LaChappelle believes they could be put to use saving lives in actions like defusing bombs and improvised explosive devices as well as assisting SWAT teams). The profits from these applications will then be invested in the company to bring the exoskeleton to market, including funding the trials necessary to get Food and Drug Administration approval.
The mission of Unlimited Tomorrow is “enabling humans to achieve the impossible.” Right now, there’s only one thing that LaChappelle is finding beyond his reach: reconnecting with the 7-year-old girl from Colorado’s 2011 state science fair who shook up his world.
“I really, really wish I had some means of contacting her,” LaChappelle says. “I didn’t get her name, but I’m hopeful that one day someone who knows her will hear about what we’re doing and get in touch.”
This article appears in the October 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.