Young South African leads the way in breast prosthetics

Nneile Nkholise is the founder of iMed Tech. (Picture: Supplied)
Nneile Nkholise is the founder of iMed Tech. (Picture: Supplied)

Suffering asthma from a young age has made Nneile Nkholise sensitive to the way in which medical conditions affect the daily lives of people around her. After school, she wanted to make a difference by helping to ease the suffering of others, yet not as a medical doctor. 

Her break came when the Central University of Technology in the Free State, her home province, launched a mechanical engineering course in Additive Manufacturing in the Medical Field. She ended up doing her mechanical engineering degree there, and is now completing her master’s degree, specialising in the manufacturing of facial prosthetics. 

During her studies she became increasingly aware of the market potential for breast prostheses and started making plans to start her own prosthetics company, iMed Tech. Since then, she has been a finalist in the SAB Foundation Social Innovation awards in 2015 and has been recognised as Africa’s top female innovator at the World Economic Forum in 2016.

Tell us more about your background.

I am the youngest of three children, raised by a single parent, my mom. I was born in Roma, Lesotho, but grew up in Thaba Nchu, South Africa. After school, I went to Wits University, but dropped out during second year due to asthma-related problems.

Health-wise it made sense to move back to the Free State, but there was also a little bit of serendipity involved since the Central University of Technology at the time launched a new course in additive manufacturing in medicine.

The course appealed to me because it married two fields in which I was really interested – engineering and medicine – while promising to equip me with skills to make a difference in others’ lives. 

Everything just seemed to fall into place. I did my engineering degree in additive manufacturing and will receive my master’s degree after presenting my paper at the World 3D Printing Conference later this year. While my thesis is on the manufacturing of facial prostheses, my company specialises in breast prostheses, because there is a bigger market scope. Moving from facial prosthetics to breast prosthetics, the basics are very similar. 

Who were the biggest influencers of your career path?

Dr Kobus van der Walt, our research supervisor, was amazing. Most of the students, including myself, knew nothing about the medical field or additive manufacturing when we started out. He led us on this new path with a passion that was contagious and inspirational. 

He also introduced me to Dr Cules van den Heever, who in 2013 was part of the team who did the world’s first nasal prosthesis implant, performed on a woman who was born without a nose. Central University of Technology has opened up many opportunities to work with very influential people and meet leaders in the field.  

When and why did you decide to start iMed?

About 3 000 South African women are diagnosed with breast cancer annually. Many are candidates for breast deconstruction. I come from a society where women take pride in their breasts – where the removal of a breast is a huge loss, physically and psychologically. Breast prostheses can help to soften this blow. I started a company that aims to make prostheses more accessible. 

The year before I launched iMed, I did a lot of market research and networking with doctors and prosthesis specialists to identify the needs of prospective clients and factors that could accelerate company growth. I officially launched in 2015.

How is your product different from what is already available?

I have been aiming to make the process of breast prosthesis manufacturing easier and cheaper with the help of a computer-aided method of data manipulation using 3D modelling. This allows for the 3D model to be fabricated layer by layer in various additive manufacturing machines to create a prototype.  

The result is a soft silicone product that compares well with higher quality imported products. Our product is a little cheaper, around R6 000 per prosthesis in comparison with R6 500 for the imported product, and we also offer a greater variety of skin tones. Up until now there have only been a few colours to choose from, the standard colours being pink or beige. We wanted to create a product that catered for our darker skinned African sisters.

The industry is still fairly young and it is still quite difficult to get hold of products, even on the internet. We hope to change this by making the products available through various channels of commerce. The market is also very male dominated. It is nice to bring something with a female touch. 

What was your first year of business like?

Quite harrowing, with most of my time spent on product development and market building. People tell you “it is tough to start your own business”. I thought they meant it was tough for a few days or weeks, not months or years. My struggles caused a lot of self-doubt, making me wonder if I was doing the right thing.

But I pulled myself together and decided to turn the hard times into a learning experience. I tapped into my networks and read as much as I could. I realised that I needed to embrace the journey if I wanted to bring change. What I am doing is not just for me, it will benefit many people.

How has the company grown since then?

Initially I worked alone primarily from home. After a while I realised that while some people could start great businesses from their garages, I was not one of them. I struggled to switch off and realised that I needed to separate my work life and private life if I wanted the business to be sustainable and not burn out.

Renting office space and going in and out to work, have helped a lot.

Since 2015 we have developed standard moulds to suite different cups and we also make custom moulds on demand. 

Manufacturing costs are high, so the prostheses are manufactured for us in the UK. We will shift manufacturing to South Africa once sales volumes justify it. It only takes about two hours for the silicon to set in the moulds and the product reaches us in SA within 24 hours.

Our offices recently moved from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg, a more central point of operation. People come to South Africa from all over the world to get mastectomies and buy prostheses. 

You reportedly only employ female engineers under 30 years of age. Tell us about this. 

It made sense when I started out, but I have since changed my mind. Men are just as passionate as women about helping women suffering from breast cancer.

It would be foolish to exclude people merely because of their gender or age. 

At the moment, I have three committed freelance employees, of whom one is a man. Of these three, two are older than 30, while the other one is 29. I also make use of many consultants and experts for guidance. Many of them are of advanced age – they bring years of experience.

What has been your greatest challenges so far?

First, to be recognised by medical aid schemes. That would really be a big break for us. 

Second, to make people more aware of the product. Winning the title of Africa’s top female innovator at the World Economic Forum has helped. 

Third, to make ends meet. I had to bootstrap for quite some time now. There are so many unforeseen expenses in running your own company, such as insurance on equipment, administrative things and necessities such as a telephone. We would have grown a lot faster if we had more funding. I have been fortunate to secure funding through my SAB Foundation Innovation award [an overall finalist, Nkholise was also an Innovation Seed Grant winner]. The foundation has also helped me to connect with other potential investors. 

What are your plans for the next five years?

When I started iMed Tech, we sold the product in a white box, without branding. Can you believe that? I have smartened up and have since developed a brand and packaging to give our product more personality and differentiate it from the competition.

This month we’re launching the brand name “Meyme”. Many people struggle to pronounce my name correctly and then end up calling me something like “Meyme”. The word doesn’t have another meaning, which appealed to me, as now it can create its own connotations and meanings. 
What do you do for relaxation?

I love to read. At the moment I am reading Originals by Adam Grant, which is about the way in which non-conformists move the world. My favourite book is Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama by Daniel Goleman. I am also an avid photographer and take my camera with me everywhere, especially now that I’ve recently moved to Johannesburg. 

Do you have any advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs?

I really like the Nike slogan, “Just do it.” Scientist and academics, like myself, tend to overanalyse and control everything in an attempt to produce the perfect product. Too much of this can work against you. Instead of brooding and overanalysing, rather produce a good-quality product and then improve on it as time moves on in accordance with customer feedback.

This article originally appeared in the 23 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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