Triathlete uses prosthetic made from hemp at Kansas company

Chad Frey
The Kansan
Marc Dunshee, left, began competing in triathalons and marathons after receiving a prosthetic leg made in part from hemp designed by  Kyle Trivisonno (left). Trivisonno is moving his company, Human Plan Solutions, out of a Wichita State business incubator into a building at the Newton City/County Airport.

Marc Dunshee shattered his left leg riding a dirt bike, an injury he was never able to fully recover from. He spent 10 years in pain, in and out of doctors' offices, before he took what some would call a drastic action to end that pain. 

He asked doctors to cut off his leg. He had to ask several times before doctors said yes, and scheduled a surgery. 

And while that could have been the biggest life-changing moment in Dunshee's life, there was another one yet to come. He applied for a job at a business that made prosthetics, wanting to learn how to make his own leg. 

"That [stuff] is expensive," he said.

It was there that he met Kyle Trivisonno, who made prosthetic legs. And it was Kyle that would ask Dunshee a question that would truly change his life. 

"He asked me what I thought of making a leg out of hemp," Dunshee said. "I personally had never thought of it, I was just learning how the layers were laid up ... He had been looking at hemp a long time before meeting me."

Trivisonno went to work in his garage, creating a new leg from hemp-based materials. It was cost effective, light, strong and durable.

"When I got this hemp socket, I put it on my running leg and that is where it stays," Dunshee said.  

That was about four years ago.

Marc Dunshee has had a prosthetic leg partially made from hemp fiber for about four years, and he has completed triathalons and marathons using the leg.

The leg was so easy to use, Dunshee went on to participate in a triathlon — the 2019 IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina. That race is a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run. He finished that race in 6 hours, 46 minutes and 4 seconds — taking first in his division and 1,590th overall. 

His time and placing did not matter. Not at all. 

"When I finished, I wondered if I was going to do another one," Dunshee said. "... I'm telling you, that event, I had the time of my life. If you have ever thought of doing it, do it. Sign up, download a training program and don't worry about the times. Worry about the distance. They will not roll you up and kick you off the course."

For the record, Dunshee has also completed two marathons — 26.2 miles — and is looking at this fall's Boston Marathon, as well. 

As he finished that first race, Sam Spallitta, CEO of Human Plant Solutions, and Trivisonno cheered as if their favorite team had just won a world championship. All three began working even harder to create Human Plant Solutions, a company that ended up in a NIAR incubator in Wichita a couple of years later. 

The company will be locating in Newton this month, set to occupy 2,000 square feet, or about half of Building V at the Newton City-County Airport, which was formerly occupied by ABI. Dunshee anticipates moving to Kansas to help with the company move and growth. 

"This is going to be cool for those people ... who can't afford health insurance but are too rich for Medicaid," Dunshee said. "How are they going to get a prosthetic. Nobody wants to talk about that issue. There are millions of them."

"There are 40 million people in the world who do not have access to prosthetic care or cannot afford it," Spallitta said. "There is a lack of education and a lack of sustainable materials to be used."

Utilizing hemp fiber, Human Plant Solutions has created an alternative to  conventional ultra light composites for prosthetic and device manufacturing. The Wichita-based company also makes "Eco-Resin," designed to replace petroleum-based resins and "No-Glass," a natural fiber base replacement for fiber glass.  

The goal, Spallitta said, is to replace carbon. 

"The reason carbon was introduced into the prosthetic industry is the aerospace industry. It is fitting for us to come back to the aerospace capitol and in give them a natural fiber," Spallitta said. "There are so many applications coming out for hemp right now. ... The plant has so many capabilities."

Spallitta said that Kansas has a ton of potential in the world of hemp production. With 45,759,319 farmable acres in the state, he believes there is room to grow the plant. 

"This is where the big boys play," Spallitta said. "We currently don't have the infrastructure in the United States to grow a long-fiber industrial hemp for textile purposes. We don't have the processing capabilities to turn that into a yarn. ... That is why Kyle and I created our company. We always had the prosthetics goal, but no one had a way to process the plant. That is where we spent a lot of time in research ... and why we want to be in Kansas. Eventually there will be domestic hemp grown in the United States."

That agreement with the city, which will be reviewed by the Harvey County Commission next week, will allow the company to operate rent-free for up to six months, allowing the company to grow and seek a permanent home in the area.  

The company plans to employ five people, with plans to expand. They expect a capital investment of $600,000 and 10 full-time positions by 2025.   

The 4-year-old venture will take residence in Newton at the Newton City/County Airport in a building that needs its own rebirth of sorts — Building V, known as the ABI building, where things just went wrong after it was constructed. 

To date, nothing has been produced in the building and the original tenants have vacated the building. 

"It is the perfect building for us," Spallitta said. "I know it has a history. ... I like being in there. It is highly motivating to go there and know that every day we grow increases the ability of us staying here."