Written by Andrew Seale
How do you take an astronauts appendix out on Mars? You print the tools. It sounds like a riddle when Julielynn Wong says it, but it’s very much the reality she’s been embroiled in since she founded 3D4MD in 2011.
The for-profit is building a digital library of quality-tested, crowdsourced, 3D printable files to make low cost, personalized medical supplies on demand locally. 3D4MD leverages the Medical Makers community (also founded by Wong) and files can be downloaded and printed in the most remote places on earth including onboard the International Space Station.
“It's not just a library… it’s a repository to benefit humanity,” says the Harvard educated physician and Toronto entrepreneur. “We are not just making 3D printed medical supplies for patients we know, we do it for people we'll never meet and these designs will continue to help people after we’re gone.”
Wong says she’s been enamoured with 3D printing’s potential to impact lives positively since she first encountered it seven years ago in Silicon Valley.
“It’s so accessible and affordable… it means anybody can be an innovator,” she says. Case in point: smart phones have become 3D scanners, you can use free online 3D design software to made printable files and the cost of owning a 3D printer has never been lower with the feedstock for printing costing pennies a gram.
But she’s quick to say the groundbreaking concept of printing medical supplies and tools inexpensively in hard-to-reach places was bound to be stumbled upon. It just makes sense.
“All I did was come along and say ‘wow, I don't think creativity and compassion should be wasted’ – if you want to figure out how to do something, let's use 3D printing to design products for social good,” says Wong.
Today, the Medical Maker community is made up of 100 innovators, healthcare providers and patients working together to make sustainable solutions across ten different countries.
“We've made a number of award-winning 3D printable, assistive devices to save time and money (and) been invited by World Bank to teach people how to use 3D printers to start their own companies and build a sustainable livelihood,” says Wong. To do so, 3D4MD has built and tested a solar-powered, ultra portable 3D printing system that fits inside a carry-on suitcase.
“Humanitarian workers travelling to remote communities can take this solar-powered 3D printer with them and use it to print lower cost medical supplies,” says Wong. “They can also leave it behind after they teach the local community how to use it.”
Despite the overwhelming applications on the horizon, Won days she never looses sight of the community that has supported and propped up her vision along the way since day one.
“We have a fantastic maker culture here in Toronto,” she says pointing to communities like HackLab.to which helped propel her projects forward. “I'm a medical doctor, not an engineer and our social enterprise, 3D4MD and medical makers would not be where it is today without the maker community – that’s something Toronto should be extraordinarily proud of.”