In episode 15 of Knights Do That, we speak with Albert Manero ’12 ’14MS ’16PhD, three-time UCF graduate and the founder and president of Limbitless Solutions, a nonprofit organization that serves kids with limb differences in an affordable and innovative way. Manero shares what ignited his passion to start Limbitless, where it’s at now and how his team continues to push the needle forward to create an impact on this world.
Produced by UCF, the podcast highlights students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni who do incredible things on campus, in the community and around the globe.
Albert Manero: As part of UCF, all of us here get that opportunity to be able to leave your mark. And if we do it well, and we do it together, we’re going to really transform our community to where it could be to be more inclusive and more accessible. And I think that UCF is just so well positioned to be able to have that continued growth and its impact that I’m really excited to be here and be a part of.
Alex Cumming: I got to sit down and talk with the founder and president of Limbitless Solutions and three-time UCF graduate Albert Manero. Albert started Limbitless Solutions while earning his graduate degree at UCF with the passion and determination to serve kids with limb differences in an affordable and innovative way.
In this episode, we get to learn what ignited Albert’s passion to start Limbitless, where it’s at now and how his team continues to push the needle.
So when I asked you, how did you come up with the idea for Limbitless Solutions?
Albert Manero: Limbitless really started because of an interview that was on the radio and I was coming to campus back in 2013. And the gentleman who was talking on the radio was developing the very first 3D-printed mechanical hands between Washington State and South Africa. And they were emailing the files back and forth around the world to be able to improve upon that, to be able to help someone in London. And I heard that and it really moved me. I was a graduate researcher at the time, I came into the lab and said, “I really want to be a part of this and who can help me.”
Alex Cumming: You’re a three-time UCF alum with a doctorate in mechanical engineering. What does it mean for you to have Limbitless Solutions here at UCF?
Albert Manero: I came to UCF in 2007 and started my undergrad and it has been such an incredible experience here and I’m really thrilled that Limbitless could be here based right at UCF and to kind of still be in that whole culture. For us as a team to be from UCF and now working with great UCF students to be developing this kind of interdisciplinary research environment, I don’t know if we could have done that anywhere else. UCF has all of those puzzle pieces from the game designers that we work with, the fine arts, digital arts, the engineering, biomedical, and in our facility we have to bring all of those different majors into the room and then kind of shake everyone up and wait to see something great comes out of it.
Alex Cumming: That’s awesome. I recently heard you say in a video that you said, “Technology infused with compassion could change the world.” Can you tell me about that?
Albert Manero: We really try to emphasize the empathy in design and being able to put yourself into the mindset of the user that would be using the technology you’re developing, whether that’s a mobile app, a piece of prosthetic equipment or any type of art design. And for our team, we really stress trying to have that empathy. And I think that that’s a piece that’s often missed in the design world and in the engineering world, where sometimes it can be cold or you can miss the end-users’ perspective. And it’s something that we really try to challenge all of our students and our staff to really think about.
Alex Cumming: It’s so important when you’re working in such a human field to keep the empathy and this end goal in mind that it’s not just for this. I mean, yes, there’s the project that hand, but it’s going for this greater good.
Albert Manero: And if you can strive to have that perspective, not just every so often, but really that’s an everyday challenge to be able to drive your design, to be able to drive your creativity over the long run, it really produces the most incredible results.
Alex Cumming: And you keep empathy and humanity at the forefront. Is that what you’re saying?
Albert Manero: Absolutely.
Alex Cumming: So Limbitless offers internships in multiple disciplines. Could you describe how Limbitless stretches over such various areas?
Albert Manero: We started out as a group of engineers from the College of Engineering and Computer Science. And then we paired up with some faculty from the School of Visual Arts and Design and (the College of) Arts and Humanities. And then in the Nicholson School for the game design aspect and psychologist sciences. And that was kind of where we had our jumping off point to be able to start to bring in these different types of creativity. And now our program has extended to nine different colleges at UCF of students all working together and about five affiliated faculty.
And that has really changed the structure of the program. So our student internship program runs every semester and we’re really excited to see students from all over the university. All majors are able to apply, and then hopefully we’ll be able to find a way to use that creativity in a way that can really forward the limb difference community.
Alex Cumming: That’s terrific. You have UCF right here, which is such a diverse [place with] so many amazing members of faculty, staff and students to draw from. I imagine there’s no shortage of great applicants.
Albert Manero: It’s been incredible. And we were able to work with Experiential Learning to be able to help structure our program.
And now students can come in from all over campus. And I don’t know many universities that have that type of program where you’ll have a fine artist next to an engineer, working with a computer scientist, working with a game designer all at the same table for the same goal. And I think that that brings a new experience, especially when these students graduate and then they go into industry that they’re so well-prepared for what’s on the other side because they’ve had to experience that real-life feel or that real-life industry feel.
Alex Cumming: There are so few options of what you offer to students in an internship role. To be able to work with something like Limbitless Solutions, not many students who are able to put that sort of thing on their resume or their LinkedIn, or be able to share that they did contributed to such a greater good or to work for a company that had, like you said, such empathy and compassion in mind with this end goal.
Albert Manero: Seeing the growth that the students have in the program has just been so wonderful to be a part of. They get to work directly with faculty who are sometimes in different colleges than their own experience, and that provides a lot of those different perspectives.
But when you talk about looking towards their career goals, having those internship or undergraduate research experiences early can just unlock so many different doors. And that’s one of our goals is to be able to provide that launch point for so many of our students
Alex Cumming: The story behind Limbitless and the stories that it shares are so familiar and you can share what Limbitless has done. And maybe down the line, future employers can say, “Oh my God, I’m familiar with that company. That’s amazing what they’ve done down there and across America and across the world.” Just thinking about the outreach that Limbitless has, I love it. It’s so cool to think about.
Albert Manero: Oh well, thank you. We were really excited for the students when they graduate, to be able to take that empathy and design and that ability to work with people from different backgrounds or perspectives than their own.
And then take that into industry. And hopefully we’ll see that ripple effect down the road.
Alex Cumming: Right. It’s not many companies that work with, well it’s not a huge handful of, that work with empathy in the forefront and humanity on it. That’s a trait that’s hard to teach in the working. So to get it in an internship that’s so focused on keeping that at the forefront is really such a cool thing.
Limbitless is in the clinical trials for Limbitless Bionics. Can you tell me about that process and the importance of the clinical trial?
Albert Manero: We launched our first clinical trial in 2018. And it has been such an experience to be able to watch something go from like the design stage, or at a kitchen table really, and then translate that years later into the medical environment. And with our bionics as we strive to eventually have FDA clearance for the device, going through the clinical research was really critical to be able to validate the design, to be able to make improvements and to be able to learn how the users are actually using the device in the real world. And playground testing is a little bit different than what you can replicate in a laboratory. that has taught us so much about how we build the arms, the intentionality behind each design decision. And coming up in the new year, we’re going to be working with Orlando Health for our second bionic arm clinical trial right here locally. And we are so thrilled to have kind of our hometown champion hospital being able to help move this work forward as we strive for those big goals.
Alex Cumming: That’s so cool. Oh my gosh. How awesome. What does it mean to you to be such an integral part in such a cherished gem in the Orlando community?
Albert Manero: I think that for our program, we’ve really focused on that team perspective because when you’re taking on goals or challenges that are so large — like in this case, accessibility technology, and across the university, we have the challenges for space, the challenges for the climate and the environment — those challenges are getting so large that you cannot solve them with only one perspective or only one department working together. You have to be able to expand that out, to bring in such a diverse group of people to try to solve those problems. And I think that Limbitless, we’ve been able to watch the program grow around that model and now, hopefully aiming for even bigger things that no one could’ve done independently. And I am so grateful to be a part of the program and to be able to work with the most incredible team and group of students.
Alex Cumming: So when you began working with Limbitless, in your years that you’ve been working there, have you seen that people you work with grow? And in these moments where such beautifully human things have happened, have you seen that these people have changed and now they maybe have this new perspective on the work that they do?
Albert Manero: Well, we laugh that our team is growing up just like our bionic kids are growing up. And if you look at it from like how the program has grown, we’re in year seven now. So we’re finally starting to hit that point where we’re a little bit more comfortable in the design work. We’re a little bit more comfortable in where we know where we’re going. But at that same point, there’s so many areas that we’re trying to grow and refine year after year for our team members.
We all started here at UCF and it’s really exciting to watch alumni be passionate about this type of thing and then stay on board for being able to move the program forward and be able to really engage with our community partners and the limb difference community. But we’ve all seen from the early days to now. And watching that professional development, and it’s something that staff really strives for, as we talk a lot about what are you reading? What’s the audio book of choice right now to try to grow those professional skills and to be able to become better leaders, better designers, and ultimately have a bigger impact. I
Alex Cumming: I imagine the company would have, like you said less of an impact if it was just this cold uncaring distant way of business, but it’s not.
Albert Manero: I think as we try to infuse that compassion and empathy into every area of the program, it does make you step back and have to approach situations differently. And as a leader, each of us are trying to learn how to do that most effectively. And that’s a growing process. So there are certainly growing pains, but it’s all in the pursuit of that excellence for the overall mission. And I’m really grateful for the opportunity to grow through that.
Alex Cumming: You said in the leadership for this, do you find it sometimes hard to juggle being in leadership of such an important and personally company, but also trying to balance that human empathy in that connection element?
Albert Manero: When I started at UCF, I was all in on aerospace engineering and that’s what I did my degree work in, my research work in for my Ph.D. And so there are certain skillsets that you might’ve picked up from a different way, like UCF’s nonprofit management degree that I would have loved to have learned. But this was the perspective at the time and the trajectory was totally different. And so I feel like on a daily basis, I’m learning how to do the job and trying to do it well. That means being able to listen from others’ experience and being able to take as much information and be able to work through it as quickly as possible in order to do it well. And we laugh that from the engineering perspective, like the machines never get upset. When you’re working on like developing a new tool, the people side, whether that’s being able to be a leader or working in a more clinical environment. That’s a totally different perspective, different vocabulary. And those are the things that at first were a little bit of that academic culture shock. But now we’re starting to hit our stride and trying to develop that shared language and shared perspectives.
And I think that that type of growth is so rewarding as you kind of like grow through it.
Alex Cumming: Coming from Orlando myself, but even before I was a UCF student or was super familiar with the UCF community, I’d heard stories about Limbitless, knowing what it had done for people and having seen the amazing videos that have come out of Limbitless. And to be aware that UCF, even before I was a student there and now as a student, was doing such amazing things in the community, it’s just such a, it’s so refreshing. All the amazing videos that Limbitless has, (the) comments are all, you know, “This is, so kind.” I saw one person say, “It’s like a good reminder of faith in humanity.” Do you see the sort of comments and you think about that and does that keep your work active and alive?
Albert Manero: For us, the moment that we get really excited by is when the child realizes that they’re taking the arm home. And there’s always this like little look where they look to their parents to make sure it’s real. And then they get this beaming smile. And when you watch that and you watch the family interactions that makes all the rest of the development and the business part and the research part all worth it. And it is a rare opportunity to be able to see something from a research lab, directly connect with your community. In here in Central Florida, that’s a gift you don’t always get, that immediate feedback. And I think that for Limbitless being able to work directly with our community and see that translation has been the most rewarding part of a whole program.
Alex Cumming: Well, Central Florida, Orlando, it’s such a vast area. And there’s so many people in so many experiences, and I can imagine that the hours that you spend working tirelessly, trying to get the designs right and the elements. And of course personally, I’m no engineer, I’m a theater major, so this is a little out of my wheelhouse, so I thank you for having it in your wheelhouse. But I can imagine that all those hours, you said working and making sure that all the angles are right and the sizes and all that. I can think that sometimes, maybe you can get hung up on something and it can be easy to forget the end goal there. But once you have it in your hands, as we have here, once you physically hold the tangible product, is there just the sigh of relief? “Okay, we got it.”
Albert Manero: I think over the last 18 months, our whole world has been kind of battling this, the isolation that comes with virtual work and being able to reintegrate now back on campus with being back in the office was easy. I think when we were all so isolated, to miss those connection points and being able to run after goals together — beyond just like the Zoom window. And I know we all spent the days where it was only Zoom. And I think that we have an opportunity now to leverage what we learned from that time efficiency that we were able to get from some of the virtual work and now pair it back with that comradery and that shared experience.
And ultimately we’ll come out stronger. We’ve all faced that. And in our lab, that was something that we’ve been really talking about of how do you take those next steps to continue to further design, the creativity and not lose the best of what you’ve been learning from the different styles of connecting, but being able to use it to run further.
Alex Cumming: How cool. You say what the different styles of connecting (are), and we spoke a little second ago about how you have students coming in from nine different colleges. You said when you’re looking at designs and the ways to make the arms look. Do you ever reach out to, when you’re going to go to the fine arts students and you say, “Do you think this design looks good? Does this look, does this look nice? Is this aesthetically pleasing?” Does that ever happen?
Albert Manero: The arm designers come from a lot of different backgrounds in our program. And we start with a sketchbook mockup of what we think it’s going to look like or take a theme. So in this case, one of the arms we were looking at dragons and mermaid scales and how we can —
Alex Cumming: I love it. I love it already.
Albert Manero: How did we weave in that creativity? And then how do you manufacture that? So what are the techniques to be able to do, make that come to life on a piece of plastic. And when you get the moment where that aesthetic jumps off the page, and then ultimately has to jump through the plastic to look like it’s more than just a prosthetic. I think that’s the moment where the students are so proud of their design and watching it go. The pencil and paper all the way through the manufacturing process.
Alex Cumming: Well, UCF has, yourself (included), some of the greatest engineers and some of the greatest fine arts students. And it’s just so cool, liike you said, to have such a rare overlap of the two — well, maybe not a rare, maybe rare is the wrong word — but it’s such a special overlap of the two to make such amazing work.
Albert Manero: And I think that can only come out of a place like UCF.
Alex Cumming: I love that. You’re very true. UCF is such a special place with such especially talented people.
So I’ve also heard some amazing things about how the bionic arms you create also allowed kids to play video games, learning the mechanics of their new arms. Can you talk about this and some of the other innovative work that Limbitless does?
Albert Manero: Early on. We learned that for children using the bionic arm for the first time, there’s a learning curve. And we went to the School of Visual Arts and Design and then Nicholson School to be able to talk to their faculty about the training aspects and the arm design aesthetic side. And one of the things that came out of that was working with multiple faculty to be able to develop a video game training system. And so professor Dombrowski and professor Smith have worked to, from your phone be able to connect with the same technology that our staff is working with the bionic arms to be able to pair that sensor to when you flex your muscles, like the character in the game. We’ll do different things. And in the app store or the (Google) Play store, you can search for Limbitless Solutions and you can play the games just by tapping the screen with your finger, or if you have that special controller and unlocks that other gesture control. And when you hide the learning or the repetitive learning inside of a video (game), it’s kind of like sneaking in the vegetables for kids and it has produced such a better response in our opinion. As opposed to just putting on a prosthetic arm and you have a room full of people watching you learn how to use it.
And you may struggle the first time picking up the rubber ducks, whatever’s on the table, it’s usually rubber ducks at Limbitless. As you are practicing that, if you feel all those eyes on you, it can be really overwhelming. So really tried to emphasize having a low stress environment to learn, and then being able to use the art to really add to that experience.
And that’s where the team from SVAD and from College of Sciences has really been able to bring perspective that we would never have had.
Alex Cumming: More overlap with the various amazing people at UCF, you’re saying.
Albert Manero: Absolutely.
Alex Cumming: So how does it feel for yourself when you see people expressing their passion and their interests through the arms that you’ve built? Specifically the Iron Man experience working with Robert Downey Jr. there, to see somebody using one of the arms that you’ve created to express how passionate they were for the Iron Man brand.
Albert Manero: I think for all of our children, they get to work with our team to do the design work and the artistic covers of the arm. They’re all interchangeable, kind of on a magnetic locking system. And that means that they get to change the design of their arm from whatever they put on in the morning to any time during the day. They can go from like real extremes of what that expression is. What we were able to take away from the children’s perspective and how their parents would talk about the arm.
We really learned that it was so much more than just picking things up. It was about that creativity and that expression, and being able to reframe the conversation from what happened to you to, how did you get that bionic arm? How does it work? That’s so cool. And that’s when we learned how the prosthetic could be more than just the function of it, it can really become a part of the identity. And as that identity for the child grows, it can grow up with them and evolve.
Alex Cumming: I love what you just said about the changing the conversation and the identity. And on a more serious note, I can imagine a lot of young people dealing with these situations growing up, they can be seen, it can become their whole identity. And in a demeaning way, young children can be quite honest and brutal at times, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but — so to reframe the conversation, like you said, is so special and doing it at such a young age can really impact these children for such a long time.
Albert Manero: I believe there’s a lot of stigma around perceived disabilities or accessibility needs, especially in the classroom, early on in elementary and middle school. And I think that the arm has been able to find a way to challenge those conversations and to reframe them in a way that makes it more about that personalization and that identity piece and less about ever trying to fill in a gap. And we really believe all the kids we work with. They’re perfect the way they are without any accessibility technology. This is really just a tool and it’s an opportunity or a platform for them to be able to express themselves in a way that that can transcend what we think normal prosthetics or the human component of your organic limbs would be. And we’ve watched some of the kids walk with their — we’re partnered with the Halo video game franchise — and they’re walking on the playground (with) Master Chief arms armor. And I think that that’s when you really get to see how much different it can be.
Alex Cumming: Do you foresee a day when sort of this maybe as a stigma about having a prosthetic arm is just none? When it’s just, it is. There is no second glance. There’s no hesitancy because it’s widespread and commonplace among individuals who need it. That there’s just no second glance about it.
Albert Manero: We’re really pushing so that there’s access to any type of technology and a choice of types of technology that people can pick from. And I think that will make it more common to see as we start to improve that side of things from that scale. But our goal with every family is that if the arm can be supportive, whether that’s for doing two-handed tasks, so holding a drink and a sandwich walking down the hallway or being able to pull out a chair with two hands or holds a test paper while you’re writing, then that’s a really valuable. And if it’s to build the confidence in the classroom so that the kids like going to school and they’re able to learn about who they believe that they are, then it’s a really powerful opportunity. And if they get to the conclusion of it and their answer is this is no longer for me, then we think that that’s a great, great outcome because they are absolutely capable of doing everything that they want with or without the prosthetic.
We just hope that prosthetic can make it a little bit easier or change some of that narrative as they continue to grow up. And that’s kind of our driving ethos behind the project.
Alex Cumming: I hadn’t even thought about that. But the day that you realized, I imagine there was a lot behind it, when you realized that you were going to be doing this project with Robert Downey Jr. To present the Iron Man prosthetic arm, how does that feel for you, the day? Like you get an email or did someone like tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, get the —”
Albert Manero: It was one of the most incredible experiences for our team. We weren’t 100% sure it was going to happen. There was rumblings or kind of whispers from the team at Microsoft, who is putting together one of those opportunities. And then one day we got a phone call and someone was like, “We’re going to be connecting you with Robert.” And then it was Robert talking and his enthusiasm for the project was there, (it) was just incredible. And being able to have that quote-unquote bionics expert on hand just made that video so amazing.
Alex Pring: Each one looks the same.
Robert Downey Jr.: Actually, I think yours might be better than mine. What do you say? We uh, we both try them on, do a progress report.
Alex Pring: Okay.
Onlookers: You know who that is?
Alex Pring: Iron Man.
Onlookers: What’s his name?
Alex Pring: Robert.
Robert Downey Jr.: God, dude, Ii’s even cooler than I thought.
I’m having a technical glitch. Um, as you can see my light isn’t working. Half the time, you know, when I designed one of these it winds up breaking on me. But what I do is I keep working on it, kind of like you’re working on it with Albert.
Alex Pring: He keeps working and working until he gets it right.
Robert Downey Jr.: Yeah, I think yours is still a little bit more right than mine because at least, you know —
Alex Pring: The lights work.
Robert Downey Jr.: Your light works, yeah.
Ah, look at that then. It’s a marriage of robotic technologies. Bang, nailed it. Love it.
Hey, good job, Albert.
Albert Manero: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.
Robert Downey Jr.: Albert has made it so affordable. I’m probably going to start farming out a lot of my tech work to Albert too. I feel like he could cut the price point down in one of my suits, which right now is about, I guess, I don’t know, a billion and a half dollars.
Albert Manero: And it resonated with people because for us, that was one of our first arms that really had that level of aesthetic detail. And we wanted people around the world to think about prosthetics differently, that you could use the technology that was in schools and universities. And you could do something with it that could really change your community. But also that we could re-imagine how prosthetics were designed to function, how they were designed to look and the overall purpose for them, as opposed to trying to replicate the skin tones to paint it red, like Ironman, and to be able to have that mechatronic look. Translating that into some of the arms that we worked with, whether it’s a fashion model or someone with a little bit more of that, the fashion aesthetic, being able to pivot to that and have those types of designs now even be interchangeable. That’s a really broad brush to paint with. And I think that that makes it a lot of fun to do the design work and whether it’s for our team or it’s for someone watching the videos, we hope to continue to challenge those expectations on design and be able to get people to dream of what the future can look like if we work together.
Alex Cumming: Well, that video, like I said earlier, even myself before coming to UCF, I was familiar with the video and the story behind it, even before being fully aware of its connection with UCF.
And do you find that young people, when they see the power of engineers and what it can create when all these great minds come together inspires a future generation of engineers? Like you said, the idea from Limbitless came from the radio. A future generation of engineers said I saw a great YouTube video and it just, it clicked.
Albert Manero: We’d love getting to hear from students who are applying for the program that have grown up with those videos and knew about Limbitless coming into UCF. And we hope that it continues to inspire others, that a next generation of innovators, to be able to continue to refine what we do. If they’re in our program or to take that level of passion and creativity into any of their fields to make the world more accessible, more inclusive, and be able to just make it a lot of fun.
Alex Cumming: You said grew up, it hasn’t been that long, has it?
Albert Manero: The program’s been going for seven years now.
Alex Cumming: Congratulations.
Albert Manero: It’s just so hard to believe. We didn’t know it would go for this long and really become like a full program. It was designed originally as a one-time project. But when we saw the impact and we started to hear from other families of how important this type of work was, it was something that everyone on our team kind of looked at each other (and) we knew this was something we couldn’t walk away from. We had to continue to run after it, with everything we had, I imagine.
Alex Cumming: And I guess, thank you for continuing with it because it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. Is there a design that just like sticks out in your head? You’re like, “OK, that’s pretty cool. Alright, let’s do it like an aesthetic build or —”
Albert Manero: We’ve gotten to work with several video game companies from the Halo franchise, League of Legends, Cyberpunk 2077, and Assassin’s Creed. And having grown up playing some of these video games and then getting to work with some of their designers or different teams and get to hold what would have been just a component of the game, but hold it in your — that is such a rare thing. And we’ve loved being able to bring those to life. And for me, I love being able to watch how the arm can change from that more mechatronic perspective, that type of design to the more organic or fashion forward type designs. And that’s what we’re trying to do is that create that full spectrum of expressions that the arm can communicate. We were really good at building like the mechatronic ones, like the Iron Man arm and those types of designs. And then being able to integrate more of that fashion style, that’s kind of our frontier we’re trying to bring that full circle.
Alex Cumming: Wasn’t the Cyberpunk 2077, I haven’t played the game, but isn’t the aesthetic like the cool arm that the Keanu Reeves character has?
Albert Manero: That’s right. And it has this like silver metallic feel to it and very industrial that steampunk, cyberpunk feel blended together. It was amazing getting to work with design aspect of that be able to bring something together that technically was really challenging to make. It replicates what’s in the game, but the Cyberpunk arm was the first one that we really announced and kicked off (the) program. (which) will be growing and expanding into supporting adults.
As we look to, maybe next year, launch our first clinical trial with adults, and specifically veterans and first responders as the —
Alex Cumming: That’s awesome. In one of our previous interviews, we spoke with UCF RESTORES who works with veterans’ services and they do such amazing work. So I imagine that, again, like we spoke about, all these amazing Knights are doing things together, but it’s all for the one greater (good). I imagine there’d be some cross-referencing there. And you said this is, for my own curiosity, but when we spoke about the Robert Downey Jr. experience, and you said Microsoft, when Bill Gates came to UCF, was that a similar experience of a tap on the shoulder or an email like, “Hey, Bill Gates is coming. He wants to check it out.”
Albert Manero: Our team really didn’t know that Melinda and (Bill) Gates we’re coming to the lab until shortly before they arrived.
And that created the — we kind of knew someone was coming and we thought it was maybe like their executive directors. And then when we were able to share that and have it confirmed, there was a lot of excitement. But we really stress with our team of treating everyone who comes in the door the same way, whether that’s a parent with their four-year-old wanting to learn about robotics and STEM or Bill and Melinda. We were blown away by how engaged they were. And Melinda was able to really talk to our students and be able to hear from their perspective of that interdisciplinary side. Both her and Bill, they help build this whole landscape of the technology we use to be able to create the things that we’re creating so it was a little intimidating in some ways. And they asked a lot of really good tough questions about the technology. But (it was) just an opportunity to be able to demonstrate how innovation at UCF is world-class. And as we continue to strive for excellence, that’s the goal, is to keep pursuing, doing it as well as we can.
And if you do that, people will take interest and it’ll change perspectives. And ultimately that will lead to being able to scale the program and really have the biggest impact.
Alex Cumming: Yeah, I can imagine. That’s a moment that the students that work with you, they say that that’s a moment that sticks with them in the long run. That they say, “Ten years ago, Bill and Melinda Gates came and they loved (what) we were doing,” and I’ve stuck with it ever since. You can’t forget that sort of thing
Albert Manero: I think that as you run towards excellence, ideally, eventually someone will hear about it. And that helps demonstrate to someone that it’s, moving and it’s in the right direction. But for us, it’s really about being able to pursue, being able to make the arm as creative and as robust as possible to maximize the opportunity for kids. And those type of — whether it’s the videos or the experiences that’s helping us be able to drive the program forward to the next level. And I believe that as part of UCF, all of us here get that opportunity to be able to leave your mark. And if we do it well, and we do it together, we’re going to really transform our community to where it could be to be more inclusive and more accessible. And I think that UCF is just so well positioned to be able to have that continued growth and its impact that I’m really excited to be here and be a part of.
Alex Cumming: In such an amazing era of UCF, when UCF is growing at such a such an amazing rate that the future seems, I guess to use the turn of phrase, just seems Limbitless. It just seems that this great expansive, amazing students and amazing work. And to your point there with personnel, as a theater student, me and my ensemble and the people I work with, we do this, we really buckle down and do our hard work in the classroom and every couple of weeks or so every month or so, somebody will get cast a supporting role in a film. And you’re like, “Oh my gosh, what we’re doing here?” You can see it. We’re doing stuff, we’re out here. This isn’t just us going around in a circle. We’re auditioning, we’re getting roles, we’re making big moves. And sometimes in the grind of it all, it can be easy to lose sight of that.
Albert Manero: I think our whole world has experienced that for the last 18 months where you’re putting in the work you’re going through the routine, but that consequence of the isolation and the distance that our world has been subjected to can make it hard to recognize it on a daily basis.
And sometimes you need those moments that kind of shake things up in order to see what that trajectory and that future (is) that you’re striving for. That you’re on track. And for us being able to have our UCF students come back into the lab, there were 30 students in the fall semester, and hopefully even more in Spring of ’22. We’re starting to see those layers kind of fall away. And I’m so grateful for it because that creativity is going to really going to take a huge jump as we start to get a little bit more comfortable and the world heals just a little bit.
Alex Cumming: So I’m curious, what continues to drive the passion for the work?
Albert Manero: For me, I think I get to communicate a lot with the families of the kids we work with. And when you hear that the arm is still working after they’ve taken it home and they’ve been at home for a while, that’s the email that pushes me forward of, OK it’s going. And then we do a lot of the repair and troubleshooting side because we’re learning a lot from the first clinical trial. And then hopefully into the next clinical trial as well that we see those improvements and refinements, but we try to troubleshoot, “Well, how did this break?” What was the use case for this, like in the classroom, on the playground? And I think that that constant challenge of wanting to make it better all the time. And to do it more efficiently, how to make it more creative and more aesthetic, be able to level up our tech. There’s a constant pursuit of that excellence that is very rewarding and very hard. And when you find those types of opportunities, you have to run with them because they’re hard to find. Where you get to see the end result and then you get to make it better and then see the new end result. Maybe that’s the engineer in me. I just love that type of challenge
Alex Cumming: Of the things that Limbitless has done and continues to do? What are you the most proud of?
Albert Manero: I remember the first time we had a group of kids all receive a bionic arm at UCF and it was right before the Ignite gala a few years back and they were able to talk to each other. And the whole — there was no stigma about limb difference, that was everyone’s family. There was in that mindset and watching how the kids could become so comfortable with each other. That to me, stood out as,what the end result of what we’re doing could really be. As being able to provide that comfort level and that change of stigma to where everyone can pursue their dreams and really run as fast as they can, or as hard as they want towards them. Where the arm just kind of as a vehicle that unlocks some of that confidence. And that’s been one of my guiding lights of where we want to take this.
Alex Cumming: Are you saying something along the lines of living a life that nothing is holding you (back)? That with the Limbitless arm, nothing is hindering me. I have the confidence and the ability as anybody else does to continue working in pursuing my passions.
Albert Manero: And you see the kids discovered that they had an in them all along. That’s a really magical moment.
Alex Cumming: That’s beautiful, man.
So I’m gonna ask you how can other support the important work that. And your team, Limbitless Solutions. How can we support you?
Albert Manero: Well, if you’d like to learn more about it on social media, you can follow us at 3D Hope or at Limbitless Solutions or at Limbitless 3D.
Alex Cumming: Well, I hope that we’ve expressed that the engineers, I mean, they’re the most wonderful, but it’s also, there’s such great diversity of people who come in and work and make Limbitless the amazing group that it is.
What’s something that you still want to do?
Albert Manero: So the bionic arm was kind of the first vehicle thing that we made. And then the second project we did, we call it Project Xavier. And it is a way to control a wheelchair with your face muscles. And we did the first clinical trial at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville for ALS patients because ALS can remove the ability for you to use your hands well enough to control the joystick. And we were able to have people flexing. They’re temporalis muscles over muscles on their face, which oftentimes, whether it’s like a spinal cord injury, quadriplegia or ALS, they’re the most likely to still be intact and really be able to be engaged. And for some patients, it was the difference between being isolated or being able to independently drive across the room to their spouse.
And it was just so moving to watch how the technology could be used that way. And it leveraged in kind of the same way the arm works, but just using your face muscles and little bit more computer science programming aspect. But that’s kind of our goal is to see that project be able to really engage and support a lot of patients.
And then ideally Limbitless is going to just keep developing these new accessibility technology pieces, and really strive to do the thing you do really well. And then try to add on a little bit more. And it’s it’s really easy. And in my experience, I’ve done that too many times where you try to do everything all at once instead of kind of layering it. So I’m learning that that’s a growth point. And if you talk to anyone on my team, they’ll probably laugh when they hear that too. But I hope it’s getting a little bit better.
Alex Cumming: Well, I’ll bet. I hope you’ve noticed that I’ve been at a loss for words because it’s just, I’m blown away by the amazing work that you do.
So I’m hitting you with the, “That’s so cool. That’s amazing.” Just cause I I’m just so mentally engrossed in just the possibility and how out of this world (and) cool it is that a university that I love and I’m so fortunate to be a part. That’s such amazing work.
So thank you. And I’ll conclude with this question. What advice would you give to somebody who does what you want to do?
Albert Manero: Do it well. And I think from our side is it’s find all of those friends you have at UCF who are from different majors and hold onto them because if you want to solve really big challenges, you’re going to need perspective that’s different than yours. And absolutely I, 100% believe UCF students are changing the world and they’re going to help solve all those world’s biggest problems.
Alex Cumming: UCF students are the best. They are just incredible. And they inspire me as I hope they inspire you as well. You get to be firsthand with them. So, absolutely, wow. Well, Albert I can’t thank you enough. You’d left me at a loss for words. So thank you so much for coming on and sharing this wonderful conversation with me. I’ve so enjoyed getting to hear more about Limbitless and the amazing work that you do. So thank you again. I appreciate it.
Albert Manero: Thank you for having me.
Alex Cumming: Of course. My pleasure.
If you’re inspired by the work that Albert and his team are doing at Limbitless Solutions, consider making a donation to support their impactful work at Limbitless-Solutions.org/donate — That’s L I M B I T L E S S, dash, Solutions.org forward slash donate.
Believe it or not. This episode wraps up our first season of Knights do That. I have had such an incredible time getting to share these amazing stories from our faculty, staff, students, and alumni with you and cannot wait to continue during season two, which we’ll be launching in January. As always, Go Knights and Charge On.