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Pimp my arm 

Tackle Design is innovating the world of prosthetics -- and sharing the love

What are good ideas worth these days? About a dime a dozen?

The four young men at Tackle Design, a small, North Carolina-based design firm (downtown Durham, that is), have a lot of good ideas. "We've thought about installing a good idea button in the shop," jokes Tackle partner Jonathan Kuniholm, who founded the company in 2003 along with Chuck Messer, Jesse Crossen and Kevin Webb. "Every time we come up with a good idea, we'd hit it, and then in real time divide our total revenue by that number to figure out what a good idea is actually worth."

click to enlarge Tackle Design partners Chuck Messer, Kevin Webb, Jesse Crossen and Jonathan Kuniholm in their downtown Durham office. - DEREK ANDERSON
  • Derek Anderson
  • Tackle Design partners Chuck Messer, Kevin Webb, Jesse Crossen and Jonathan Kuniholm in their downtown Durham office.

"The point of that is to try to devalue good ideas," explains Messer. "People think that they have this great idea and somebody's going to steal it, so instead what they'll do is to lock it away in a box and never let anybody see it."

Ideas are the easy part. Making that idea a reality is the hard part. And the best way to do that, according to the Tackle philosophy, is to let go of the notion of ownership.

"We try to avoid ever taking claim for who came up with which idea at the table," Kuniholm says. "Who really cares? It doesn't matter. Because it takes you 10 minutes to come up with an idea, and it'll take you six months to turn it into a product that anybody's going to use. That's where the energy is, that's where the investment is."

"Six months of sweat and $50,000 of labor," Messer adds.

It might seem strange that people who make their living doing creative work would want to devalue ideas. But by making them free, these designers are contributing to a movement called open design.

Modeled on the concepts of the open source software movement, which makes software code available for anyone to see, modify, improve upon and distribute, open design is a nascent but growing movement in its own right. A paraplegic named Ralph Hotchkiss made his mark in 1985 by publishing a book of wheelchair designs that could be made with local materials in the developing world. In 2003, a former Peace Corps volunteer living in Wilmington named Jock Brandis created a simple, inexpensive, manually powered nut sheller that shells nuts 40 times faster than by hand and delivered it to a women's coop in Mali. Brandis' Full Belly Project continues to distribute the shellers, as well as the molds and materials to make them, throughout Africa. Tools to collaborate on open design projects are being developed, too, such as Instructibles.com, a site that offers plans and team building.

Tackle's most notable contribution to open design thus far is the Open Prosthetics Project. At openprosthetics.org, prosthetics users can join the "Pimp My Arm" or "Pimp My Leg" discussions and share ideas about how to make their devices better. Prosthetists, engineers and others are invited to contribute their time and ingenuity to realize those improvements and contribute the designs to the public domain, the common public property of knowledge and innovation that anyone may use, share, alter or sell. (Hotchkiss' organization, Whirlwind Wheelchair International, is now a partner in OPP.)

"The loop in prototyping, in just traversing that path from idea to product, has a lot of friction in it," Kuniholm says. "Our goal with the Open Prosthetics Project, and more in general with the Shared Design Alliance [the nonprofit umbrella of OPP], is to try to reduce the friction in that loop to make the free exchange of ideas about physical designs more possible."

This is a story about good ideas and a group of people trying to realize those ideas by giving them away. It's about elderly farmers in North Dakota and jaundiced babies in the developing world getting what they need -- and what the market does not provide. This story is about a little design firm in the Triangle that's plugging into a growing movement to make it easier to make stuff for everybody.

While working together on a project at N.C. State University, a group of engineering and design students hit it off. Their collaboration blossomed as they produced a surgical device. Grant money allowed them more time to work together to develop it. They found they shared a zeal for solving real-world problems.

"We were actually sitting there in a brainstorming session working on the project thinking, 'We've got such a buzz on this,' because we'd just discovered something," Messer recalls. "We thought, 'We've got to find some way that we can do this all the time.'"

They dreamed of working at places like Squid Labs, an engineering design and technology company near San Francisco; IDEO, an international firm with outposts in San Francisco, Boston and Chicago; or the lab of the TV show Myth Busters. They joked that their dream workplace would be "the bait and tackle shop with the mad scientist's lab in the back," Messer says.

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