Stories > Moulding A New Concept
Moulding A New Concept
Singapore start-up Castomize aims to revolutionise the rehabilitation of broken bones and fractures with its groundbreaking 4D-printed cast.
BY ALYWIN CHEW
he common saying “size does not matter” is one that Singaporeans know all too well. According to the latest figures by the Singapore Economic Development Board – a government agency that creates strategies to enhance the Lion City’s status as a global business and innovation hub – the city-state is home to over 60 multinational medtech companies. This includes 25 research and development centres, as well as over 220 local medtech start-ups and small-medium enterprises. Among the homegrown medtech start-ups, Castomize exemplifies the innovative spirit of this constantly evolving ecosystem – it can claim to have created the world’s first 4D-printed orthopaedic cast for arms.
LEARNING FROM MISHAPS
The idea behind this groundbreaking product was spawned when Peng Mao Yu, the former co-founder of Castomize, broke his arm while on a mountain expedition in 2017. After complaining to Johannes Sunarko and Eleora Teo, his schoolmates at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, about how uncomfortable the cast was, the trio decided to address the issue by creating a 3D-printed version.
When Peng decided to leave the team to pursue another business venture, he sought out his business-savvy friend, Abel Teo, who was a student at the business school at the Singapore Management University, to take his place.
To their disappointment, the cast prototypes the team eventually created were not well-received by doctors despite being more comfortable and convenient to use, recalls Sunarko. “The entire process of creating a 3D-printed cast took several days. In contrast, a conventional plastic or fibreglass cast can be created within a day,” he says.
“Also, a 3D-printed cast would have cost much more than a conventional one. The doctors would also have to learn 3D-printing. That iteration of our product was not feasible.” Undeterred, the team explored new ways of creating orthopaedic casts that were more convenient than conventional options.
A REVOLUTIONARY PRODUCT
In 2022, they struck gold following their experimentation with 4D-printing technology, which offers the additional dimension of time. What this means is that 4D-printed objects can change their shape over time, unlike the rigid 3D-printed ones.
As such, 4D-printed orthopaedic casts can adapt to the changes in the shape of a patient’s injured arm as they recover, and this translates to a more comfortable experience. But the printing technology itself is not the hero here – the proprietary polymer used to create the cast and Castomize’s proprietary lattice structure are the reasons why this product is considered revolutionary.
The polymer makes the cast waterproof, fully ventilated and significantly lighter than conventional casts. Moreover, the lattice design enables medical practitioners to better monitor the user’s recovery while also allowing the user to scratch an itch.
The only drawback about this cast is that it costs 30 to 50 per cent more to make than a conventional one. But as Teo explains, the host of benefits it offers more than makes up for the cost.
“Our cast can be taken apart and
reshaped with heat according to the
patient’s needs. Reusing our cast
once is pretty much equivalent to the
cost of two conventional casts.”
Johannes Sunarko, co-founder, Castomize
“Some patients need to apply a new cast at different junctures of their recovery, and this means having to use multiple plaster or fibreglass casts, which results in waste. In contrast, our cast can be taken apart and reshaped with heat according to the patient’s needs. Reusing our cast once is pretty much equivalent to the cost of two conventional casts,” says Sunarko.
In 2022, Castomize showcased its 4D-printed prototypes to the public for the first time at the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology and promptly got tongues wagging.
A representative from the Center for Healthcare Innovation in Singapore was so impressed with the invention that he connected the founders with Tan Tock Seng Hospital – the flagship of the National Healthcare Group – which has been providing help with clinical validation and refinements of the cast.
Castomize’s prototypes can also be found in South Korea. This connection to a foreign market, explains Teo, came courtesy of VentureBlick, an incubator for medtech start-ups that the Castomize team encountered when they participated in the 2022 K-Startup Grand Challenge, an acceleration programme by the South Korean government that seeks to attract outstanding start-ups to set up operations in the country.
Besides being the first company to invest in Castomize, VentureBlick has also secured a distribution agreement in South Korea for the 4D-printed cast for arms.
According to Teo, who shuttles between South Korea and Singapore, the 4D-printed casts could hit the two markets by the third quarter of 2024. The plan is to roll out different sizes of the cast so that most patients would be able to use them.
The start-up will also be looking to create casts for other limbs soon. Parties from Taiwan and Thailand have expressed an interest in Castomize’s product. But the team is not just stopping at making casts for humans. Even casts for pets are being considered, he shares.
NEW LESSONS ALONG THE WAY
Looking back on the start-up’s journey, Teo says two of the most important lessons he learnt is being able to pivot quickly when things do not seem to be going in the right direction, and considering the perspectives of all stakeholders.
“We discovered that the hospitals were concerned about the size of the heating element that will be used alongside our cast. We initially planned to use an oven, but it takes up plenty of space, so there was some resistance to that idea,” he says.
“If we did not integrate the feedback
from our stakeholders objectively,
we would likely have ended up with
an irrelevant product and a failed
Abel Teo, CEO and co-founder, Castomize
“We are currently creating a space-saving alternative that will be revealed after proper IP protections have been completed. If we did not integrate the feedback from our stakeholders objectively, and downplayed their concerns, we would likely have ended up with an irrelevant product and a failed start-up.”
He has also walked away with some cultural learnings of his Korean experience.
“The first impressions I got was that things are quite hierarchical in Korea,” he recalls. “When we sent some of our Korean part-time staff to explore potential collaborations with local hospitals, we learnt that the doctors felt we were being disrespectful by sending a ‘low-ranking’ employee.” The company finally got around this challenge by outsourcing the work to a local Korean distributor who is more attuned to the country’s work culture.
“My Korean counterparts shared with
me that in Singapore, hierarchical
seniority does not matter much and
productivity is the primary driver.”
Abel Teo, CEO and co-founder, Castomize
Conversely, Teo’s Korean associates are also fascinated with the Singapore work culture. “My Korean counterparts shared with me that in Singapore, hierarchical seniority does not matter much and that productivity is the primary driver,” he says.