Campus News

Hackers aim to help elders age in place

Students gather at the Aging Innovation Challenge to solve the problem of aging in place.

Participants in the Aging Innovation Challenge get down to work. Photo: Gianna Damico

By GRACE LAZZARA

Published January 14, 2020

“They’re all entrepreneurs in a way. You’d be amazed by the number of products on the market designed by occupational therapists.”
Hadar Borden, director
Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars

The words “entrepreneurship” and “hackathon” don’t usually bring to mind images of elders and occupational therapy. But that’s just what happened during UB’s third annual Aging Innovation Challenge, hosted by Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars.

This year’s event, held Nov. 1 in the Student Union, presented students with issues faced by elders who want to continue to live at home — “age in place” — but find handling many common tasks difficult. Participants were asked to develop prototype products and hack the issues that aging New Yorkers and their caregivers face in completing daily activities, like taking a shower, walking across a room or eating a meal.

More than 100 UB students answered the challenge, representing the schools of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Public Health and Health Professions, Social Work, Architecture and Planning, Nursing, Management, Law, Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and the College of Arts and Sciences. Community members like Amherst Senior Center staff, as well as UB alumni also took part, serving as keynote speaker, resource mentors and judges.

Janice Tona, clinical associate professor and director of the Occupational Therapy (OT) Program in the Department of Rehabilitation Science, was among seven faculty members planning and leading the challenge. While Tona has been an adviser to the Aging Innovation Challenge since its inception, OT students had not taken part in the event until Tona incorporated it into the OT curriculum this past fall as part of her OT548 class.

The connection between entrepreneurship and OT is natural, according to Blackstone LaunchPad Director Hadar Borden. Even though most people think about health professionals in private practice, “everyone comes up with hacks to support their clients,” Borden says. “They’re all entrepreneurs in a way. You’d be amazed by the number of products on the market designed by occupational therapists. Professor Tona’s OT students embraced the experience, and demonstrated the energy and creativity we are trying to encourage on campus.”

The competition followed the typical startup format: “Idea champions” provided a quick pitch of their concept. “Free agents” flocked to ideas they liked to form teams that developed prototypes. Judges evaluated ideas based on a formula that awarded points to measures like innovation, usability and impact.

Teams had three minutes to present their ideas to the judges, who awarded cash prizes and encouraged teams to continue to develop their ideas. In all, 17 teams presented prototypes. When the dust settled, the three winning teams all included OT students:

OT students Ivy Cheng, Warren Deng, Bencia Nelson and My Ngo won first place for Laundry Lift.

Four occupational therapy students made up the winning team, Laundry Lift. Photo: Gianna Damico

  • First Place: Laundry Lift. OT students Ivy Cheng, Warren Deng, Bencia Nelson and My Ngo created The Laundry Lift, a spring-loaded laundry hamper on wheels. The bottom of the hamper slowly descends as someone puts clothes into it, making loading and unloading laundry easier.
OT students Krystan Berard, Gillian Hopkins, Jenna Schunke and Brittany Zouzias won second place for Roly-Poly Pot Pour.

The runners-up. Photo: Gianna Damico

  • Second Place: Roly-Poly Pot Pour. OT students Krystan Berard, Gillian Hopkins, Jenna Schunke and Brittany Zouzias developed the Pot Pourer to help people more easily lift and move heavy pots across countertops. The product then uses a simple level system to help pour hot contents into a sink or other container.
Speech pathology and audiology student Michelle Iliev and OT students Jen Gordon, Allison Bigg, Kayla DeLucia and Shana Martakis won third place for Forget Me Not Mobility Sensor.

The third-place team. Photo: Gianna Damico

  • Third Place: Forget Me Not Mobility Sensor. Speech pathology and audiology student Michelle Iliev and OT students Jen Gordon, Allison Bigg, Kayla DeLucia and Shana Martakis attached a set of mobility sensors to a walker and the person using it. The sensors monitor the distance the person travels away from their mobility device and beeps if they walk too far from the device. The invention includes an emergency alert system in case of a fall.

The most important idea that students and other participants should gain from the challenge, Borden says, is that “entrepreneurship is for everyone.”

She also emphasizes the importance of students working with others outside their own discipline. “The event demonstrates to students that we need interdisciplinary, diverse teams to solve problems,” she says.