Young South African leads the way in breast pros­thet­ics

At just 27 years of age Nneile Nkholise has started a com­pany that uses ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing to de­sign breast pros­the­ses for women. Her goal is to sup­ply a soft, light-weight prod­uct that is af­ford­able and easy to ac­cess by any­one in the coun­try.

Finweek English Edition - - ON THE MONEY - By Glen­neis Kriel

suf­feringasthma from a young age has made Nneile Nkholise sen­si­tive to the way in which med­i­cal con­di­tions af­fect the daily lives of peo­ple around her. Af­ter school, she wanted to make a dif­fer­ence by help­ing to ease the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers, yet not as a med­i­cal doc­tor.

Her break came when the Cen­tral Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in the Free State, her home prov­ince, launched a me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing course in Ad­di­tive Man­u­fac­tur­ing in the Med­i­cal Field. She ended up do­ing her me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing de­gree there, and is now com­plet­ing her mas­ter’s de­gree, spe­cial­is­ing in the man­u­fac­tur­ing of fa­cial pros­thet­ics.

Dur­ing her stud­ies she be­came in­creas­ingly aware of the mar­ket po­ten­tial for breast pros­the­ses and started mak­ing plans to start her own pros­thet­ics com­pany, iMed Tech. Since then, she has been a fi­nal­ist in the SAB Foun­da­tion So­cial In­no­va­tion awards in 2015 and has been recog­nised as Africa’s top fe­male in­no­va­tor at the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum in 2016.

Tell us more about your back­ground.

I am the youngest of three chil­dren, raised by a sin­gle par­ent, my mom. I was born in Roma, Le­sotho, but grew up in Thaba Nchu, South Africa. Af­ter school, I went to Wits Univer­sity, but dropped out dur­ing sec­ond year due to asthma-re­lated prob­lems. Health-wise it made sense to move back to the Free State, but there was also a lit­tle bit of serendip­ity in­volved since the Cen­tral Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy at the time launched a new course in ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing in medicine. The course ap­pealed to me be­cause it mar­ried two fields in which I was re­ally in­ter­ested – engi­neer­ing and medicine – while promis­ing to equip me with skills to make a dif­fer­ence in oth­ers’ lives.

Ev­ery­thing just seemed to fall into place. I did my engi­neer­ing de­gree in ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing and will re­ceive my mas­ter’s de­gree af­ter pre­sent­ing my pa­per at the World 3D Print­ing Con­fer­ence later this year. While my the­sis is on the man­u­fac­tur­ing of fa­cial pros­the­ses, my com­pany spe­cialises in breast pros­the­ses, be­cause there is a big­ger mar­ket scope. Mov­ing from fa­cial pros­thet­ics to breast pros­thet­ics, the ba­sics are very sim­i­lar.

Who were the big­gest in­flu­encers of your ca­reer path?

Dr Kobus van der Walt, our re­search su­per­vi­sor, was amaz­ing. Most of the stu­dents, in­clud­ing my­self, knew noth­ing about the med­i­cal field or ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing when we started out. He led us on this new path with a pas­sion that was con­ta­gious and in­spi­ra­tional.

He also in­tro­duced me to Dr Cules van den Heever, who in 2013 was part of the team who did the world’s first nasal pros­the­sis im­plant, per­formed on a woman who was born with­out a nose. Cen­tral Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy has opened up many op­por­tu­ni­ties to work with very in­flu­en­tial peo­ple and meet lead­ers in the field. has de­vel­oped a way to make breast pros­the­ses cheaper and more ac­ces­si­ble.

When and why did you de­cide to start iMed?

About 3 000 South African women are di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer an­nu­ally. Many are can­di­dates for breast de­con­struc­tion. I come from a so­ci­ety where women take pride in their breasts – where the re­moval of a breast is a huge loss, phys­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally. Breast pros­the­ses can help to soften this blow. I started a com­pany that aims to make pros­the­ses more ac­ces­si­ble. The year be­fore I launched iMed, I did a lot of mar­ket re­search and net­work­ing with doc­tors and pros­the­sis spe­cial­ists to iden­tify the needs of prospec­tive clients and fac­tors that could ac­cel­er­ate com­pany growth. I of­fi­cially launched in 2015.

How is your prod­uct dif­fer­ent from what is al­ready avail­able?

The mar­ket is also very male dom­i­nated. It is nice to bring some­thing with a fe­male touch.

I have been aim­ing to make the process of breast pros­the­sis man­u­fac­tur­ing eas­ier and cheaper with the help of a com­put­eraided method of data ma­nip­u­la­tion us­ing 3D mod­el­ling. This al­lows for the 3D model to be fab­ri­cated layer by layer in var­i­ous ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing ma­chines to cre­ate a pro­to­type.

The re­sult is a soft sil­i­cone prod­uct that com­pares well with higher qual­ity im­ported prod­ucts. Our prod­uct is a lit­tle cheaper, around R6 000 per pros­the­sis in com­par­i­son with R6 500 for the im­ported prod­uct, and we also of­fer a greater va­ri­ety of skin tones. Up un­til now there have only

Nneile Nkholise

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