07 February, 2018
Former Toyota engineer turned prosthetic limb innovator, Mat Bowtell is no ordinary Australian.
Following a trip to Japan and an interaction with a $1 million bionic arm, Mat couldn’t rest knowing this was so unattainable for the majority of people in need of prosthetics. He returned to Australia and invested his own money in a 3D printer.
Over the next four years, while juggling his job at Toyota and two children, Mat designed and built the Kinetic Finger – a functional prosthetic finger that has the ability to manoeuvre like a regular finger.
And so began Free 3D hands, Mat’s commitment to designing and making prosthetics for those who can’t afford them. To date, he has changed the lives of hundreds of people, and counting.
This week Mat is one of nine extraordinary Australians to receive a Westpac Social Change Fellowship, valued at $50,000.
What is your vision for Free 3D Hands?
I believe that anyone born with a disability or limb difference should be looked after by our collective society - to be given the best quality of life that we can afford them, and that technology allows.
My vision is to create a world where all people have the same access to prosthetics and assistive devices, regardless of where they were born or their financial circumstances. Utilising my experience in lean manufacturing and 3D printing, I am developing low-cost prosthetics that will be available to anyone who needs them. I am passionate about learning emerging manufacturing technologies and best practices that will enhance my ability to develop even better products. This year my focus will be to develop, trial and release the equivalent of a $40,000 bionic arm that can be made with under $100 in parts.
Can you tell us a bit about the impact of your work?
When I see the look of pure joy on a child’s face when they try out their new hand for the first time, it always makes me very emotional. The kids are involved in the design process for their unique hand, choosing the colours for each part. So they feel a sense of ownership immediately and gain a lot of confidence in themselves. As parents, we want to be able to give our kids every opportunity we can, so it’s also quite emotional for them seeing their child try things they never imagined possible. Through my volunteer work, I am also trying to teach my own children the importance of giving to others in need.
You were recently named 2018 Victorian Local Hero – through the Australian of the Year awards. What did this mean to you?
I never set out to seek acclaim or recognition for my volunteer work, and just wanted to share love, compassion and empathy towards others. Being named 2018 Victorian Local Hero was a kind gesture of acknowledgement and confirmation that I am heading down the right path in life. After being made redundant from the automotive industry closure in October, this recognition came at a very important time to give me confidence to move forward to accelerate and expand my activities. The friends, connections and opportunities that have opened up through the awards process has been the most valuable aspect for me, not the actual award itself.
What excites you about being a Westpac Scholar?
I’m most excited about what I can learn from and share with others. Becoming a Westpac Scholar will expand my network significantly, and I look forward to sharing career and life experiences with other changemakers to ultimately help to make this country even greater.
What do you think Australians can do to make this country an even better place?
We need to remember that this land was here long before we were born, and will be here long after we are gone. So, we all need to ensure we leave it in the best state we can for our children and grandchildren. Every time we make a key decision, we should temporarily eliminate money and ourselves from the equation to ask if it is the best long-term decision we should be making for our country.
Your proudest moment?
Becoming a father. As an engineer, it was the first thing that I had helped to co-create that actually worked first time, was delivered in full and on time, and exceeded all expectations. All jokes aside, having two wonderful children come into my life has really given me a new sense of purpose and perspective on life, with a renewed determination to be the best person that I can be.