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VA Wants Your Help Building Better Prosthetics

Vietnam veteran John Loosen, who lost a leg in Vietnam, shows off a new microprocessor-controlled prosthetic knee during a photo opportunity with his physical therapist Lindsay Martin, right, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Vietnam veteran John Loosen, who lost a leg in Vietnam, shows off a new microprocessor-controlled prosthetic knee during a photo opportunity with his physical therapist Lindsay Martin, right, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. // Evan Vucci/AP

The Department of Veterans Affairs wants to build better prosthetics. And it wants your help.

Last week, VA’s Center for Innovation launched its three-month Innovation Creation Series for Prosthetics and Assistive Technologies. The aim of the series is to build a suite of special prosthetics and other state-of-the-art technologies to support wounded veterans in their day-to-day lives.

The center chose a total of five challenges, including a “smart” medication pill box, a device for dulling tremors and a specialized gaming console to improve hand-eye coordination.

The challenges selected were based on both the level of need among the veteran community as well as the potential for translating solutions for use by the public at large, according to Andrea Ippolito, a presidential innovation fellow who organized the crowdsourcing series.

“We also want to . . . try to attract people to want to work in this arena -- rehabilitation -- to design the best possible services and technologies surrounding prosthetics and assisted technologies that can help not only veterans but patients at large,” Ippolito said in an interview with Nextgov.

For example, even with the neuro- and muscular attachments in many of today’s upper extremity prosthetics, they often still can only be used for gentler tasks. So one of the series’ challenges is to develop a device that changes the grip strength and speed of a prosthetic.

NASA's recent success with open innovation challenges inspired the VA innovation team to jump into crowdsourcing, Ippolito said.

“When you hear NASA talk about them, they see that you can really help capture the creativity of the public and the crowd to think of new innovative ways and new approaches to thinking about different types of innovation,” she said

The use of competitions and challenges among agencies is a growing trend. In 2014, agencies held twice as many competitions as they did in 2012, according to a recent report by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Two of the VA challenges will be open to submissions this week on GrabCAD, an online platform for engineers to share ideas. Another opportunity will be available in June on InnoCentive, a crowdsourcing platform.

The final two challenges are expected to be solved at an upcoming “make-a-thon,” which will be held at the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, at the end of July.

Projects will be evaluated based on their effectiveness by a panel of judges from within VA and private sector entities. All of the designs will be open source.

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