Cal Poly Student Project Turns into Business Helping Parkinson’s Patients
The Gaitway is an affordable device that interrupts the sudden onset of immobility in patients, preventing falls
SAN LUIS OBISPO — A student project to help a local military veteran has become a business designed to help patients with Parkinson’s disease overcome a debilitating and dangerous symptom known as “freezing of gait.”
De Oro Devices, based in San Luis Obispo, recently edged out six other startups for a $100,000 investment during the second annual Central Coast Angel Conference Pitch Competition held in April. De Oro Devices founder Sidney Collin, who graduated from Cal Poly in March with a biomedical engineering degree, said the product will formally launch in September, allowing Parkinson’s patients everywhere to walk uninterrupted.
“Mobility is such a big part of being independent,” Collin said. “So we want to be able to keep people mobile.”
After her second year at Cal Poly, Colling was matched by a professor with Jack Brill, a Korean War veteran from San Luis Obispo who has Parkinson’s, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Brill experiences “freezing of gait,” a condition where signals sent from his mind are not being delivered to the leg muscles, 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 in four out of five people with severe Parkinson’s. In worst case scenarios, the patient can actually fall during an immobile episode, resulting in serious injury.
While working on the project as part of the Quality of Life Plus (QL+) program, which pairs the challenges of wounded vets with student projects, Collin piggybacked on research showing that audio and visual cues can interrupt freezing of gait to re-establish the brain-body connection and restore mobility. While those features were integrated into existing devices, they couldn’t be added to a person’s cane or walker. And other devices 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, he or she 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.
Brill, 87, has been helping with Parkinson’s research for years. After the Gaitway successfully helped him, 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 said: ‘OK — we need to get this out to market — how do we do it?’” Collin said.
After Collin worked on the product through the QL+ program, it went to Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship — first in its Hatchery program, which fosters initiatives, then to the HotHouse Incubator, which provides resources for budding businesses. The HotHouse, she said, provided work space, funding and business mentoring.
“I came to this with only a technical background,” Collin said. “It was like a crash business course.”
She eventually teamed with Adam Schwartz, 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, as co-founders.
As the trio continued their research, interviewing 50 Parkinson’s patients who experience freezing of gait and performing informal testing on a dozen, their device garnered attention, taking first place in the Not Impossible Awards pitch competition in Los Angeles and attracting investors before winning the Central Coast contest.
“Cal Poly is incredible,” said Brill, a former engineer who also wrote books about socially responsible investing, “and the whole program that Sidney is part of.”
Collin said De Oro is now seeking to add two full-time employees so it can have 200 devices on hand by its launch goal this fall.
The device, she said, can also help patients with multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.
“My ambition is to be able to create technology to help people,” she said.
Korean War veteran Jack Brill shows Sidney Collin a page from his autobiography. While Collin was a biomedical engineering student at Cal Poly, Brill issued a challenge that eventually resulted in Collin’s business, De Oro Devices, which helps Parkinson’s patients experiencing freezing of gait.
In the the photo at top, Sidney Collin works on one of her devices, called the Gaitway, at her company’s space at the SLO HotHouse in San Luis Obispo.
Contact: Pat Pemberton
(805) 756-7402, (805) 235-0555
May 7, 2019