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.
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