‘I want to solve problems and be useful’: meet the rising star prosthetics engineer | From startup to up and running
Nate Macabuag knows he has a huge task ahead of him. The founder of London-based Koalaa is on a mission to make prosthetics that are comfortable and affordable for everyone in the world who needs them.
“People with limb loss have been left by the wayside. Prosthetics are crazy expensive and really hard to get,” says Macabuag, whose work creating easy-to-fit modular prosthetic arms for children and adults has seen him included in the 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 – Europe – Social Impact list of leaders creating a more sustainable and equitable world.
Prosthetics are traditionally designed as rigid structures with a motorised element to aid the user’s movement. In 2018, Macabuag and his mechanical engineering cohort at Imperial College London were tasked with designing an affordable prosthetic arm for below-elbow amputations. They worked with quadruple amputee Alex Lewis, and Macabuag was particularly struck by Lewis’s request to make him a tool rather than focus on replacing his hand.
The result was a slip-on fabric sleeve that clips into a range of tools designed for different tasks such as holding a pen or a phone, or riding a bike. The prosthetics are not motorised, bringing production costs right down without compromising on utility.
Koalaa launched in March 2020 – just as the pandemic was gathering pace. “We knew things were going to get pretty nasty soon, so we wanted to set up quickly and get going,” says Macabuag. Metro Bank, he says, was by far the fastest to open a business bank account.
It was also important for Macabuag to talk to an actual person rather than conduct his financial affairs just via an app. Little did he know that he’d be ascribed a dedicated adviser who’d not only become a vital part of his team, but also a friend.
Mustafa Omar is Metro Bank’s local business manager for its store in Hammersmith, west London. Along with helping his customers run their accounts efficiently, Omar devotes himself to supporting them in any way he can. “Ultimately it’s about helping someone who has a great idea to develop it into a business,” he says.
Macabuag admits to being surprised when he met Omar for the first time. “Compared to how I imagined business managers in a bank to be, he’s a genuinely nice guy that you want to involve in your company,” he enthuses. “He shares in the successes and feels like a member of the team.”
For Omar, the feeling is mutual. “Nate and I have become close. It’s been a really good journey with him and nice to be a part of it from the very beginning up until where he is now,” he says.
Omar gets involved as much as he can. For instance, the young business was faced with regulatory issues when trying to certify the fabric prosthetics as medical devices. “Both Nate and I were chasing the regulator together, sending emails and making phone calls,” Omar explains. “I reached out to people in my network who I thought might be able to help, and so we ended up getting him regulated and his business account up and running.”
As Koalaa ramps up production and sources new investment, Macabuag is particularly grateful to have a solid team around him. “Having Mustafa on side has been a massive weight off our shoulders,” he says. “It’s so nice to work with people who have a ‘let me help you’ attitude as opposed to ‘computer says no’.”
He adds: “It’s important to have a good framework around you, especially when you’re starting something new. Everything is hard – you’re pushing against the edges of what’s been done before, convincing people who are used to working in one way to try and work in another. My background is in engineering and I want to solve problems, be useful to people and try and make someone’s life a little bit easier. And that’s what I want to spend my time thinking about.”
In December 2020, Koalaa joined a selection of UK charities as a service provider to the Douglas Bader Foundation’s Project Limitless, which aims to provide a free prosthetic arm to every child who needs one. Macabuag says Koalaa’s products are now being used in countries including Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. “From it being four of us in our bedrooms making prosthetics with sewing machines, there are now 16 of us in a factory and we’re churning out around 100 a month.”
As the orders continue to land, Macabuag is confident he can scale the business to satisfy demand. “If there is something you feel passionate about, or there’s a problem you really want to solve, that’s the core of any small business,” he says. “It only takes a small team of like-minded people to make something happen. It’s always worth the effort. No one will be angry with you for trying. If everyone did that, how cool would the world be to live in?”
To find out more about what Metro Bank can do for small businesses, and go behind the scenes with Nate and Mustafa as they record their very own national radio advert, go to metrobankonline.co.uk/start-up-stars