Student-Created Project Vive Aims To Help Those Suffering From Cerebral Palsy
One of five startups graduating from Penn State LaunchBox, Project Vive pushes to improve the quality of life, as its French translation suggests, for those with non-verbal Cerebral Palsy.
Mary Elizabeth McCulloch was on an exchange trip to Ecuador in high school when she first noticed the need for Project Vive.
“I started volunteering in a special needs orphanage, where I worked with children and adults with complex communication needs,” McCulloch said. “Some had a form of cerebral palsy that resulted in the inability to speak and no speech generation devices were available for them. This really motivated me to major in Biomedical Engineering and ultimately found Project Vive.”
Cerebral Palsy, a group of neurological disorders that often develop in early childhood, affects muscle coordination and motor skills. Caused by brain damage that happens before birth or shortly after, Cerebral Palsy can also affect a child’s vision, hearing, and speech. Thus, the effects of non-verbal Cerebral Palsy are inconceivably taxing on the communication of those with the disease, which affects an estimated 3.3 per 1000 United States children. While there is currently no cure, children are often treated through therapy or even surgery. However, as McCulloch noted of her experience in Ecuador, not every person is privileged to afford such extensive medical attention.
“Communication is the basis for human interaction,” McCulloch said in a recent video by the Big Ten Network. “But you only realize how valuable communication is when it is missing.”
There are currently several alternative devices available to assist with communication disabilities. These devices, however, are often expensive or expect the user is capable of hitting touch screens or various buttons. For those with a more serious lack of body movement or muscle control, these devices are not only overpriced, but also exceedingly impractical for their needs. For this reason, many continue to live with very limited communication.
“In less developed countries, and even in the United States, the number of affected individuals is high, while the ability to pay for assistance devices is low,” McCulloch wrote in the brochure for the project.
For example, one alternative approach makes use of eye tracking, which is converted to spoken words by a screen. Unfortunately this approach can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 plus maintenance fees. The cost of this device is simply not feasible for the average United States citizen, let alone citizens of less developed countries.
McCulloch soon realized that there were no conceivable options available for those in similar situations to the children she met in Ecuador, so she knew she needed to update the standard for communication devices to drastically improve their conditions. She attended Penn State Altoona for two years following her return to the United States and worked hard to balance life as a student athlete. Despite top performances on the women’s swim team, McCulloch did not forget her experience at the Ecuadorian orphanage. Rather, this experience propelled her to success.
Assisted by professors and her father, who also studied engineering at Penn State Altoona, McCulloch began to transform her concept into reality.
“The Vive device is a low cost speech generation device that senses many different types of movement,” she said. “These movements are used to click through menus that can be predictive to construct phrases. We have sensors that measure finger movement, toe movement, elbow movement, and even slight movement like muscle twitching.”
Essentially, users are able to effectively communicate at high levels with any muscle movement. By tracking very simple movements, the Vive is able to make complex speech a reality. Users of the device require partial control of just one joint, such as a knee, finger, or ankle. Additionally, the Vive does not stop at simple responses such as “yes” or “no” but rather opens users to a broad realm of speech. “For instance, one minute the user can be asking for a drink and the next, commenting on their favorite sports team’s chances in the upcoming playoffs,” McCulloch wrote in the Project Vive brochure.
The Vive device is flexible to the particular needs and abilities of the user and can appear as simple as a bracelet. However the most impressive and important aspect of the Vive is its price. At less than $100, the Vive is soon to improve the lives of all people in need of it, regardless of their financial situation.
McCulloch advanced to the final round of Penn State’s Inc.U pitch competition, which gave her an automatic interview with Happy Valley LaunchBox. The LaunchBox, part of the Invent Penn State initiative, began in January with its initial class of five startups.
“They give us completely free office space to house all of our prototypes, parts, equipment, etc.,” McCulloch said. “We are graduating from their 10 week boot camp that allowed us to develop our Business Model Canvas, cash flow model, pitches, and more. We also learned and got to talk to Angel investors and VCs.”
McCulloch is now working toward the official release of the Vive for customers. “Our one year goal is to be commercialized and selling our devices and helping low income communities receive assistive technology,” McCulloch said. In order to achieve this, McCulloch will be working full-time this summer. “We have hired four full-time summer interns and will be working full time out of LaunchBox,” she said.
The most important takeaway McCulloch credits to LaunchBox is that the customer comes first — through LaunchBox, she learned the importance of talking to her customers and adapting to their requests and expectations. “We will be launching into user testing with families and a school. We are actively searching for anyone that knows a loved one that could benefit from our technology and serve as a tester. We are excited for the feedback and to incorporate many changes to better suit our users.”
McCulloch’s experience with innovation and the start-up scene is nothing short of impressive and she encourages others with similar passions to pursue them despite looming fears of failure.
“Find something that you are passionate about to carry you through the bad times,” McCulloch said. “Investigate your product and your competition. Failing early may be the best thing that ever happens to you.”