Beyond the Infinite
Beyond the Infinite, Spring 2012
Volume 7, Issue 1
At MIT, many individuals and teams dedicate their public service to developing health technologies and assistive devices. This is one type of service that the MIT Public Service Center supports through a variety of funding and advising resources.
In this issue of Beyond the Infinite, we want to share with you four exciting stories of how MIT students have developed health technologies and assistive devices for people and communities in need with the help of Public Service Center support. We’ll update you on the progress of two teams that we’ve told you about before, and we’ll also introduce you to two students we’re sure that we’ll tell you about again.
We’re proud of our students, and we hope that you will read on to learn why.
Leveraged Freedom Chair one of 2011’s “most impressive inventions” per WSJ
In December, The Wall Street Journal named Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC) as one of the seven most impressive inventions of 2011. To give a sense of the quality of the list, the other innovations included IBM’s Watson computer system (of “Jeopardy!” fame), a computer-operated fighter drone, and a replacement heart valve that can be delivered without open-heart surgery.
Leveraged Freedom Chair is a low-cost wheelchair designed for developing countries. Its lever-powered drivetrain enables travel on rough terrain and for long distances, as the user can intuitively change gears by moving hand position on the levers.
“Being placed among the other technologies named…well, we never imagined being placed on a list like that,” said Tish Scolnik ’10, Leveraged Freedom Chair co-inventor and executive director of Global Research Innovation and Technology (GRIT).
GRIT is a nonprofit organization that Scolnik and her team founded to disseminate the LFC. Using the LFC as its flagship project, GRIT aims to bring technologies from academic labs into the developing world.
The Public Service Center’s relationship with the LFC team predates the LFC itself. Amos Winter SM ’05, PhD ’10, primary inventor of the LFC, has been involved with the Public Service Center since 2005. In July, he will be joining the MIT faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Through fellowship funding, the PSC supported Winter, Scolnik, and other members of the team who traveled to Tanzania, Kenya, and Guatemala to assess the state of wheelchair development and conceptualize solutions. In 2008, the original LFC prototype was developed and won $7,500 from the IDEAS Competition (now the IDEAS Global Challenge). Since then, the PSC has continued to invest in MIT students working on the project, totaling tens of thousands of dollars in support through fellowships and grants.
After developing prototype chairs in various locations around the world, including Africa, Asia, and Central America, the LFC team is now piloting operations in India. By getting a handle on the logistics surrounding manufacturing and distribution now, the team aims to increase its global reach in the near future.
“We’re getting production up and running in India and doing a pilot distribution of 100 chairs in India this summer,” said Scolnik. “We’re really trying to figure out distribution in India before we start sending chairs all over the world so we can iron out logistical kinks and identify additional partners.”
In addition to its continuing work in the developing world, the LFC team is in the process of acquiring feedback for LFC Sport, a U.S. prototype of the chair targeted at active wheelchair users. Scolnik and her team have been spreading the word about LFC Sport by traveling to various conferences this spring, including the 2012 Abilities Expo in Los Angeles.
“We were really encouraged by the feedback and enthusiasm of the people who came by our booth [at the Abilities Expo], and we have come away with a much better understanding of the U.S. wheelchair market and how the LFC fits in,” said Scolnik.
The LFC’s core team also includes Mario Bollini ’09, SM ’12; Ben Judge ’11; and Harry O’Hanley ’11, SM ’12. Despite all members being relatively young in age, the team already has about 25 years of collective experience working in wheelchair development.
“Individually, it would’ve been difficult for one of us to do this project,” said Scolnik. “But together, I guess there’s just something special about this group.”
The impact of touch
For the blind and visually impaired, identifying everyday household items can be a daily struggle. One innovation that began at MIT seeks to improve the quality of life for these individuals.
The 6dot Braille Labeler is a device that allows a visually impaired user to easily produce embossed Braille labels in any language. The 6dot Labeler has countless applications for improving day-to-day life, as it can be used to label prescription bottles, CDs, canned foods, and anything else.
The concept of 6dot began when Karina Pikhart ’09 did a service-learning project in 2.009, The Product Engineering Process, in the fall of her senior year. Karina and her classmates developed a prototype Braille labeler for the class, but for some, the close of the semester left them with more work to do. That spring Karina and some of her classmates further developed the concept and entered the IDEAS Competition (now IDEAS Global Challenge), through which the team won a $7,500 award in May 2009.
That summer, Karina also received a fellowship from the Public Service Center to explore business and manufacturing opportunities. Along the way, she met with organizations and individuals to continue to receive feedback on the prototype.
In the almost three years since then, much has happened to 6dot. Karina and 6dot moved across the country to Palo Alto for Karina to attend Stanford University for her master’s degree in mechanical engineering while 6dot was able to entrench itself in the Silicon Valley community.
“We were able to bury our roots in the Valley,” she said. “Teaming with that base of people and getting tied into the Stanford community was a really healthy step for us.”
Since moving to Palo Alto, the 6dot team received funding awards from both the 2010 ASME Innovation Showcase and the 2011 Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students (BASES) student showcase. Most recently, the 6dot team raised just shy of $55,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.
This March, the 6dot team began shipping product for a pilot production run of 200 units as it works to align its operations to be ready to produce at full-scale in a few months.
“We have a strong network of customers who have always been very eager to give feedback,” said Pikhart. “These 200 customers form an important part of our 6dot family.”
Aside from collecting feedback from its pilot customers, the 6dot team has been visiting workshops and trade shows specific to assistive technologies for the blind in order to get involved with their target market and learn from others. As Karina gets ready for the team’s next steps, she does not forget where all of this started.
“There wouldn’t be a 6dot without MIT, and the implication of that is pretty big,” she said. “The feedback we get from customers brings me to tears, not infrequently. For us to be able to provide this to customers today has a huge impact on their lives.”
“It made a difference to have our university give us a stamp of approval when we really were just kids with a small prototype,” she added. “The impact we promised to make then we’re making now. It’s great to see the journey that we made, but it’s also great to see the commitment MIT made to us through the IDEAS Competition.”
The 6dot team hopes to align its production schedule to have a presence at the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, and the team is interested in connecting with MIT alumni and friends who have experience with the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Additionally, 6dot is interested in speaking with those who are involved with education and literacy for blind and visually impaired children. To contact 6dot or to learn more about the company, visit http://www.6dot.com/.
MIT graduate student Greg Tao ’10, SM ’12 took his first step into the 2011 IDEAS Global Challenge with a simple pitch. In front of a room of about 100 of his fellow students at an IDEAS event, he held up a $40 pressure cooker and a gas camp stove. As he remembers the pitch:
“I’ve got a pressure cooker; I’ve got a camp stove. This is less than $100, and you can save a lot of lives with this. I’m making an autoclave. If you want to talk to me, I’ll be over there.”
In the events leading up to his pitch, Tao developed an interest in autoclaves, machines that use steam under high pressure to sterilize medical instruments, when participating in D-Lab’s solar autoclave project. But after he talked with some MIT students from Nepal who lived in his dorm, he realized that there was a different route he wanted to take.
“People cook food everywhere, and in Southeast Asia, people have pressure cookers because it makes cooking more efficient – they use less fuel and save people money,” Tao explained. “People already have those, and that’s really all it takes to sterilize medical instruments.”
Tao realized that by taking advantage of this common household item, he could create a simple yet effective autoclave of his own. As he strongly believes, developing technology for technology’s sake is unnecessary when solutions already exist.
“I really think the challenge in the next century for health care is improving access to existing technology in the developing world,” said Tao. “I think that there are services and products out there, but you have to provide a comprehensive solution. I want that to be my thing.”
Tao’s solution is a low-cost autoclave that outfits a common household pressure cooker with a monitoring apparatus that he and his team developed. The pressure cooker, which can be powered by wood fire, electricity, gas, or solar power, kills 100 percent of microbes when used properly. To ensure proper use, the autoclave’s monitoring apparatus speaks basic instructions in the local language and notifies the user whether or not the cycle was completed successfully.
Though autoclaves do exist in the developing world, they are expensive and rely solely on electricity. In rural areas without a regular supply of electricity, these autoclaves prove to be useless. Instead of autoclaving, these rural health posts boil their medical instruments. Though moderately effective, boiling fails to kill about 5 percent of microbes.
“This leaves some really nasty stuff behind, including tetanus and sporulated bacteria,” said Tao. “When you cut people open for deliveries, open wound care, and suturing, especially in rural health posts, you’re putting patients at significantly elevated risk.”
After winning a $10,000 implementation award from the IDEAS Competition in May 2011, Greg and his team field-tested their original prototype in Nepal over the summer. In January 2012, the team traveled back to Nepal with support from a Public Service Center fellowship to distribute three updated prototypes. There, the team also met with government officials in Nepal’s Ministry of Health and Population who provided positive feedback on the autoclave. As the device has already influenced 100,000 patients by the team’s estimation, they hope that the Nepali government will eventually distribute the autoclave to all rural health posts in the country.
After graduating with his master’s degree in mechanical engineering this June, Tao plans to work full-time on the autoclave project until his planned entry into medical school in fall 2013. Specifically, he and his team will be working with manufacturers, government health officials, and potential buyers.
“Over the next year we’re looking to develop a professional product; generate evidence on that product to show that it saves lives, lowers infection rates, and saves money; and getting the government to say all of the above,” said Tao.
With MIT commencement a matter of weeks away, Greg is still amazed by the progress his team’s autoclave has made over the course of a year.
“A year ago we just had that pressure cooker and gas stove,” he said. “The fact that it’s moved this far this fast is awesome. It can definitely be attributed to those who have helped fund it and give us advice. It’s the types of support like that that allow work to move this fast and go this far, and without that, it would probably be still hanging out in a lab somewhere.”
Improving access to vital technologies
William Li SM ’11 has a strong track record of transforming the lives of others with assistive technologies. For Li, now a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, these technologies have likewise transformed his entire academic career.
As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Li co-founded the university’s chapter of the Tetra Society of North America. The Tetra Society is a nonprofit organization that facilitates opportunities for volunteers to develop assistive devices for people with disabilities. Through Tetra, those with needs for assistance can submit requests that are then forwarded to the appropriate chapter.
As Li moved on to begin graduate studies at MIT, he brought with him his interest in this system.
“When I came to MIT I got involved in assistive technology research, which became my main research,” said Li. “But beyond that, I wanted to see if there was something similar at MIT in that we could get requests from people with disabilities and get teams of students to work on these issues.”
At the time there was no such formal system in place, so naturally, Li created one.
He founded Assistive Technology at MIT, a group that creates low-cost customized assistive devices for those with disabilities in the Greater Boston area.
“With assistive technology you are dealing with very specialized needs,” said Li. “Because of these small niche markets, there are a lot of technologies that don’t exist commercially, or if they do exist they can be very expensive.”
With this problem in mind, Li entered the 2011 IDEAS Global Challenge with teammates from the Assistive Technology group. Specifically, the team focused around developing a low-cost, universally accessible mobile device interface for those with severe disabilities. Though smartphones and other mobile devices are designed with ease of use in mind, they can have the opposite effect on those with certain physical disabilities.
“People with physical disabilities that limit their fine motor skills have a lot of difficulty in using smartphones,” said Li. “With smaller phones, touchscreens, and keyboards, it’s becoming even more difficult for people with limited motor skills to use these technologies. There’s almost an irony in that they’re being locked out of this movement of digital devices.”
The Assistive Technology team developed a relationship with the Leonard Florence Center for Living (LFCL) in Chelsea, Mass., a residence for individuals with severe ALS and multiple sclerosis. Since residents have extremely limited motor skills as a result of these diseases, some had no way to communicate with others or control their environment.
Working with LFCL, the Assistive Technology team implemented interfaces that allow residents to interact with their smartphones, tablets, laptops, and speech synthesizers using any input, be it a pushbutton, a sip-and-puff switch, or a webcam-based head tracker. The team's vision is for residents to be able to take full advantage of their devices to make calls, send messages, browse the Internet, and open electronic doors and elevators at LFCL.
As a result, the Assistive Technology team won a $10,000 award from IDEAS to further their work in developing and implementing their universally accessible device interface.
The semester after winning in the IDEAS Competition, Li served as the teaching assistant of a new MIT service learning class – 6.S196: Principles and Practice of Assistive Technology. In the course, teams of three or four students are matched with clients and develop an assistive device, solution, or technology that meets the clients’ needs.
Student teams spent the semester developing everything from better speech recognition for email to an iPhone app for the visually impaired. According to Li, it doesn’t matter how technical a project is as long as it delivers. In his opinion, one of the most successful projects was an adapted spoon designed to help a client eat soup better.
“This was one small task, but the team spent the entire semester developing and designing spoons,” he said. “Sometimes these things might seem small, but anything that can increase someone’s independence can be a pretty big deal.”
As someone who has dedicated his academic career to the field of assistive technology at MIT and beyond, Li says he values the opportunities afforded to him and the personal connections that he has made while helping others.
“It’s been very rewarding to work with very enthusiastic students and find mentors through the IDEAS Global Challenge, Public Service Center, and my research advisors,” Li said. “It’s been immensely rewarding to know the people we get to work with on these different projects. These personal connections have given me a lot.”