Throughout the summer 2016, two University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC) students worked full time at a campus accelerator building their DFA project as a business venture. Together, Isak Massman (‘18 Business) and Fiona Kalensky (‘18 Systems Engineering & Design), are expanding Therapalz: therapeutic robotic animals for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
In the fall of 2014, Therapalz worked with Circle of Friends, an adult day center in Champaign, IL, observing support groups and interviewing in-home caregivers to better understand the caregiving experience.
While talking to a man who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years prior and had lost 98 percent of his verbal skills, the team noticed his dynamic with his Yorkie. “Throughout the interview, he would get up and start to wander,” said Kalensky. “Other times, he’d start shaking and become aggressive and try and get up again. It wasn’t until this tiny little Yorkie came into the room and hopped onto his lap that his demeanor changed.”
This interview inspired the team to look into animal-assisted therapy. They quickly realized that, while animals are calming, taking care of them is often too much of a burden for patients and caretakers. That insight motivated the team to brainstorm ways to provide the comfort of a pet without the responsibilities of caring for a live animal. “We wanted the same calming features in a more feasible and accessible way,” said Kalensky.
The team considered multiple ideas for a while. Taking the leap and building their first prototype increased their confidence in their design. “It wasn’t until we committed and built the prototype of the first real animal that we felt we had something here,” said Kalensky.
The team focused on creating robotic stuffed animals with many of the same therapeutic qualities as live pets. “The [robotic] cat has a heartbeat and can detect tactile input,” said Massman. “If you touch or pet it, it responds by generating subtle heat and vibrations to simulate a purring cat.” One day, the team hopes to add subtle heat to all the animals for more soothing tactile sensations.
After prototyping their idea, the Therapalz team applied to the Cozad New Venture Competition at UIUC, which encourages students to create new businesses. The competition started with over 120 teams in January. After a round that involved a 90 second pitch, the top 50 qualifying teams each submitted a business model proposal.
Therapalz was one of only 19 teams admitted into the iVenture Accelerator program, which allowed Massman and Kalensky to spend their summer turning Therapalz into a start-up. Both students received a stipend to work on the venture over the summer. As a part of the program, the team also gets up to $10,000 in seed funding valid throughout the upcoming school year.
As they finish their current iteration of their prototype, the team will run a pilot study by working with six different nursing homes and hospitals. In addition, they are considering how their animals could also positively affect people with Asperger Syndrome and Autism. They are also working to collaborate with more organizations throughout the Urbana-Champaign area.
Want to learn more? Stay up to date on Therapalz’s progress on their website!