Visitors have arrived at Jack Brill’s residence with questions about a device that helps him walk, but the 87-year-old war veteran has something else in mind.
“I wanna show you my awards,” he says.
Then, with the help of that device, Brill slowly heads down a hallway — humming as he goes — to a room full of awards, including a lifetime achievement honor from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County. As a former industrial engineer, financial consultant, veteran and author, Brill, of San Luis Obispo, has lodged many achievements. His latest contribution came when he inspired a Cal Poly student to create a device helping Parkinson’s patients overcome a debilitating symptom known as “freezing of gait.”
“Mobility is such a big part of being independent,” said the student, Sidney Collin, who graduated from Cal Poly in March with a biomedical engineering degree. “So we want to be able to keep people mobile.”
De Oro Devices, the company she launched with the help of Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), recently beat out six other startups for a $100,000 investment during the 2nd Annual Central Coast Angel Conference Pitch Competition. While De Oro is now a business designed to help patients worldwide, it began as a student project targeted toward one.
After Collin’s second year at Cal Poly, a professor matched her with Brill, a Korean War veteran, who has Parkinson’s, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Brill experiences “freezing of gait,” a condition in which signals sent from his brain are not being delivered to the legs, resulting in the sudden onset of immobility.
“You freeze,” Collin said. “Your feet feel like they’re glued to the floor.”
Freezing of gait occurs with 80 percent of people with severe Parkinson’s. In worst case scenarios, the patient can actually fall during an immobile state, resulting in serious injury.
While working on the project through the Quality of Life Plus (QL+) program, which pairs veteran challenges with students who work on solutions, Collin’s research found that audio and visual cues can interrupt freezing of gait, re-establishing the brain-body connection and restoring mobility. Existing devices did incorporate those elements, they but couldn’t be added to a person’s cane or walker, and they didn’t provide on-demand cueing.
“It was either always on or always off, and that was a problem for a lot of people,” Collin said.
Her device, called the Gaitway, is slightly bigger than a computer mouse and easily attaches to a cane or walker. When a patient gets stuck, they can activate an audio cue (a metronome beeping noise) or a visual one (a green laser line that projects on the ground), which will interrupt the freezing of gait.
After the Gaitway successfully helped Brill, he invited Collin to a Parkinson’s support group with 15 to 20 other people that could also benefit from it.
“That was the point where I was, like, ‘Ok – we need to get this out to market – how do we do it?’” Collin said.
After working in the QL+ lab, Collin took her device to the CIE, first in its Hatchery program, which foster initiatives, then to the HotHouse Incubator, which provides resources for budding businesses. The HotHouse, Collin said, provided office space, funding and business mentoring.
“I came to this with only a technical background,” Collin said. “It was like a crash course.”
She eventually teamed with Adam Schwartz, currently a Cal Poly student majoring in business administration, finance and financial management services, and William Thompson, who earned his MBA from Cal Poly and works with the university’s Academic Affairs Technical Services Department, as co-founders.
As they continued their research, interviewing 50 Parkinson’s patients who experience freezing of gait and performing informal testing on a dozen, their device garnered attention, winning first place in the Not Impossible pitch competition in Los Angeles and attracting investors before winning the Central Coast contest.
“Cal Poly is incredible,” said Brill, who published two books about socially responsible investing. “And the whole program that Sidney is part of.”
De Oro’s space at the HotHouse, located in downtown San Luis Obispo, includes two white boards, mapping out the strategy of her business. The boards include words like “water resistant,” “buzzer” and “interface design” and a quote from racing legend Mario Andretti: “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”
Collin is both in control and moving full-speed ahead: De Oro is now seeking to add two more full-time employees so it can have 200 devices ready by its September product launch goal.
The device, she said, will also help patients with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.
“My ambition as a person is to be able to create technology to help people,” she said.