Speech Generating Devices and speech assistive devices on the market today are expensive. Insurance policies are complicated and not everyone who needs one is always covered. Meet Mary Elizabeth McCulloch, she’s changing lives by giving a voice to the voiceless with Project Vive and Voz Box. A recent biomedical engineering graduate from a family of engineers and makers, Mary and her team are inventing Speech Generation Devices in new wearable forms by working closely with the people who most need them. Listen and find out how Mary and Project Vive are using low cost sensors and changing lives by leading the development of innovative medical devices and technology.
- It was really all about the access, not just in price, but in the sensors.
- Low cost sensors that could change someone’s life. These are sensors in our cell phones that can be used, and we’re really adapting that for the disability community.
- Wearable for independent communication - worked closely with the person using the device so that the design was modified to fit real life.
- Loop of instantaneous feedback - Gave the person using device a voice and a vote.
- People with disabilities are problem solvers.
- This is about innovation that is informed by people within the disability community.
- This is a great way to break down the stigma of disabilities.
- Cisco - 100k prize
- Projectvive.com - accepts donations via fiscal sponsor
Links and Resources:
Hey everyone this is Judy Warner with Altium's OnTrack podcast. Thank you for joining us today. If you've been listening to our podcast I would equate today's podcast with being the desert or the cherry on the sundae. It's a great story and a great woman that I look forward to sharing with you. Mary Elizabeth McCulloch who has a startup called ProjectVive. Before we get into our conversation with Mary Elizabeth please remember to connect with Altium on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and I would also love to connect with you on LinkedIn or on Twitter, I'm @AltiumJudy and also, if you prefer to watch this on YouTube rather than listening just go to Altium's YouTube channel, click on videos and you'll see all of our podcasts there. So that is all the housekeeping. So let's get into the good stuff.
So, about a week or so ago I got a message through LinkedIn - an introduction to this young lady Mary Elizabeth, and she was telling me about her company and we've since connected, had a couple conversations and I'm so excited to share what this young innovator has done. So Mary Elizabeth, welcome my dear I'm so glad to have you and thank you for taking the time to to meet with me today.
Thank you it's such an honor to be on this podcast.
Ya no, it's truly our honor. You know technology does so much for us in our lives but what you're doing is such a great human story. So tell us a little bit about your educational background and tell us about your parents and background, cuz I think that does a lot to set up your story?
Yeah, yeah awesome. So I guess educational background; I studied Biomedical Engineering at Penn State, I graduated spring 2016. I was always really interested in Science and Math in high school - what else? So my dad, he was a Physics major at Penn State, he's gone into Engineering for really his whole career. He's worked a lot with CNC controls in the milling machine industry and then my mother, she has a Biology Degree, a Mechanical Engineering degree, and some Biomedical Engineering graduate work - actually on the artificial heart at Penn State - so you know my family's background and my own.
Impressive. So you shared with me a little bit about - I had asked you: did you always know you were gonna go into engineering? So tell us a little bit about the things you and your dad used to do when you were young cuz I think it speaks to your story?
Yeah so, growing up my parents really had an interesting - or an interest in - farming and fixing things around the house and not going out and buying something new and really just trying to understand how to repair motors like rototillers, tractors, things like that and I guess my dad would also buy little chemistry kits for us to work on in the basement and yeah, we kind of had a blast with that. But also, my parents always really encouraged me to try new things, and one of those new things was to go, after I graduated high school, to Ecuador and I decided to be a Rotary Exchange Student and so I spent a year in Ecuador and outside of high school I decided that it would kind of be cool to volunteer in an orphanage, and this orphanage specifically was for children and adults with disabilities. And this is kind of one of the things that it I had never really had this like experience coming from you know a student who grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania and there I was and I really was taken aback by a woman who was in a wheelchair sitting by the window who had cerebral palsy and couldn't speak. So I started asking her yes and no questions - wasn't getting a response back and then after, a couple days of working with her saw that she had voluntary movements. If it wasn't a blink of an eye and I figured out what was a yes movement and what was a no movement, what was a tremor, um and started kind of communicating with her in this way. And I - it kind of hit me that there were a lot of other individuals not just only in this orphanage but in this country who had these type of disabilities and didn't have someone there who was asking them these yes and no questions and figuring out what they like to do, what they didn't like to do. And then really the lack of opportunity because of their disability that they had. And I was, you know, 18 years old at the time, was going back to the United States to major in Biomedical Engineering, and I really thought you know, I would really like to create something to fix this and who did I tell - I told my dad - and my dad right away, was like: you can fix it, you can - we can figure it out you know, just like these little ideas that I had growing up that dad just was - got really excited about.
Yeah I mean they're - I guess I didn't go into it a little bit, but growing up there was sometimes like when I was learning how to draw flowers and stuff he's like: we could, you know make, a milling machine that would draw these into bed boards and you can program it that way, and anyway, it just kind of was a natural thing for my father to just when that inventor side of me came out, for him to encourage that and not be some crazy idea but something that yeah would take a lot of work but I knew it was something I was really passionate about and you know I'm 26 now, and I'm still just as passionate about it and I'm really glad that my dad pressed me to move on with it.
Well I was so impressed in our conversation where I almost felt like you were set up in this life to do the work you're doing because I remember you saying that when you were answering the yes and no questions, that you could see her countenance light up and she was in a better place after being able to communicate and I don't think any of us can imagine what it would be like to live with the frustration of not being able to communicate in a fluid way. And there are speech assistive devices available to people that are mostly affluent so what's the cost of speech assistive devices, on the market for people who have the money to buy them?
Yeah, so you know, a speech generating device isn't just you know, a box like a tablet, it includes things like a mount, to put it on their wheelchair. It also includes different sensors you know, if they can't do direct selection and select on a board sometimes they need a sensor and that they can control with their foot, or even with their eye movement. So if you're looking at a full speech generating device, for a low-cost one six thousand dollars, for a full one you're looking at fifteen thousand dollars and sometimes even more, so it's a thing that has you know, made some headway on getting covered by insurance. But having a communication device covered by insurance can cause issues as well. Because sometimes it's not medically necessary, and then of course, people that don't have insurance, that can be really hard to get one.
And is that kind of the disconnect you saw I mean, obviously people that are in Ecuador don't have that reach or that capacity. So is that sort of an area of compassion for you to go: they don't have access?
Yeah absolutely. It was - it really was all about the access and not just in the price but also in the type of sensors to give people access to you know, control speech generating device not just with a finger, but with eyes. And knowing that you know, there's so much technology out there and I know in the beginning we prototyped with Arduino and Raspberry Pi and these really low-cost sensors that could like change someone's life and just like you said, can you imagine not being able to communicate and connect with someone? And to think that these low-cost sensors could allow someone to make relationships, to share their dreams with and that was definitely one of those things that you know, as a freshman engineering student really gave me a passion to bring these types of sensors that we are using every day you know, in our cell phones and in all this technology all around us but really adapting that for the disability community.
So once you were in college, you have this idea, your dad's encouraging you. What was the next step for you? How did you start innovating and deciding to actually make a device?
Yeah, so I guess as soon as that, the first thing I did was decide that I was going to make a device. I think that was just like that was...
-that was a first step right?
That was the first step. The training and the business model, that kind of all came later, but I guess the first thing that I did was, I took a trash can, I carved out two sticks, put a potentiometer in the middle of them and hook that up to an Arduino Mega and basically wrote a program that allowed someone to calibrate it to say what angle, or the threshold that they needed to to make a selection. And then had these WAV files playing that basically went through menus. So for example, one was like food, the other was emotions and so if they kick the foot and they move the potentiometer for the angle that it needed, with the width of threshold that would open up the food options and then they could you know select something like: I want to eat, or I want to cook, and then yeah made that a checkmark. Then I made a glove, so that somebody who could just you know, twitch their finger also press a finger on a surface and really the whole time I was thinking about the individuals that I worked with in Ecuador you know. At one point I was like: Christina could use this..
- Ah, I love that.
-she was really - and she still is - I actually just saw her last summer, she's doing wonderful. But um really great foot control but nonverbal cerebral palsy like the things that she could do with her foot, I would give her you know my cell phone, and she could click down on a button. So I was thinking like, what is - - what are ways that I can create something that was wearable for independent communication?
Because a lot of times these people didn't have caregivers that are around them all the time to make sure that their communication device was in the right position. But then as soon as I had a working prototype you know, it was like I gotta test this you know. Let's see if this works and if what I'm doing is completely you know, not gonna work and that's where I found Arlyn. Arlyn is from Johnstown Pennsylvania, she has cerebral palsy. She's in a residency home and she also has great control of her feet - very strong legs, similar to Christina. And we used the foot sensor for her to share her poetry for the first time. And were able to really adapt our program to do that, and right away there were things you know, that didn't work. We tried an insert into a shoe, and she was like you know that doesn't feel comfortable I don't want anything in my shoes - and really just started this design process with her you know and seeing what she would be comfortable wearing and also what was working and what was efficient. And how did that integrate into her daily life and be something that she did want to use to communicate every day.
I love that you were collaborating with her, and that you gave her a voice to say, I don't like that in my shoe right. So to create this loop of instantaneous feedback, you gave her a voice, but you also gave her a vote on how she would interact with this device, how would I - that feels good, that doesn't feel good, this works for me and, by the way, for those that may be listening or watching, I will share the videos with Arlyn, they will make you tear up instantly. It's - this woman is a poet and her poetry is beautiful, and she is now sharing her poetry for the first time in her life because of Mary Elizabeth's ingenuity.
-and Arlyn you know, she - she is so smart, and really our design has so much of her in it. And I talk about this sometimes, I know I talked about it with you. With people with disabilities - just you know - being problem solvers because they have had to overcome hurdles their whole life. Like Arlyn, she sets her VCR with her foot, so many people don't even know how to set their VCRs she's doing it...
That's hilarious [laughter]
-so many people don't even - caregivers who come around, they don't know how to work this VCR and you know, to make sure that, that experience and that perspective that she has, is in this assistive technology that we're developing and I think it's a really important population that really gets overlooked in technology and innovation and especially innovation, for the disability community.
Well you have no idea how much I just love you and what you're doing. It is such an amazing thing. In just the few videos that you have Mary Elizabeth, you can see the light in her eyes and you can see the camaraderie between the two of you and the deciphering and working together on how to make this the best fit for her - it's really a beautiful thing. And so, at some point in college, you got it working right, you got a working prototype right? And did you show that to your dad at some point or how?
-Oh he was involved in this, this whole point.
Oh he was, okay.
-he you know, he had and still does - in CNC controls, so you'd have little parts that we would need to mill out so we'd be talking you know: can can you make this design for us? We didn't even have a 3d printer at the time so - we have a 3d printer now which makes rapid prototyping - but yeah, yeah he was you know really alongside of us. But also it was, taking engineers - and a lot of times you know this happened with us - was people that had all this tech skill but never interfaced with people of disability and seeing where they could apply their skills, and how much an impact that could make on a life, and on many lives. And I think really, for my father, that was you know, a really aha moment, because you know a lot of times - people with disabilities - when you meet them for the first time, and if you're not used to it - you might think that they don't have anything to contribute, and that they don't have ideas because of their communication disabilities.
And me - when my dad saw Arlyn give us design advice - he was like: oh my god you know, here is this woman in the middle of Johnstown with all these ideas. We've been working in our lab and on the bench for a year, and like we didn't come up with these things, and right away she was like: hey why don't you try it just as you know, a switch here, and place it here, move the - let's categorize the menus in a different way to make them more optimal and just all these ideas and it was really just a great way to break down the stigma of disabilities while helping people.
I love, you know obviously, I've been in this industry for a long time and I love what technology can do you know, for people's lives. And I love that you've been able to make that connection. I love that, hearing about your dad that his eyes are so wide open and I think that is something you've really made me aware of, that makes complete sense to me now, it seems like an obvious thing is people that are not speech capable would be amazing problem solvers, they would have to be and so to have those as your collaborators. What a genius idea right, plus they're gonna be the ones using it so also to have a vote in how this is. So, you continued to develop it and then did you patent it at some point?
Yeah so actually, my freshman year I filed for my first patent - provisional patent. Full application my sophomore year, which is a awesome you know. Two and a half - three years waiting to hear back from the patent examiner - but we were awarded our first patent November 2016.
Yeah it happened like two weeks before our IndieGoGo campaign went live, so there was just a lot of excitement going around that and yeah, so that was our first one down, hopefully many more to go, and we're always innovating new things around here. But yeah that was a huge, huge accomplishment for me.
Yeah not many have their first patent awarded while they're in college - that's pretty neat. So you got your patent, and tell us about - you had mentioned on the phone about - I think it was in your junior year about Penn State coming up with a Young Entrepreneur program and so you started filing for some competitions or some things that would actually give you some funding to help move you forward?
Yeah, so really in my junior years I kind of had this realization that if I was gonna make the impact that I wanted - a large social impact - I was gonna have to scale. If I was gonna scale, I would need a really sustainable business model to fuel that. So luckily right around ProjectVive's birth, Penn State and President Barron launched the Invent Penn State initiative which started Happy Valley Launchbox, which was a no-cost business accelerator downtown for students and community members so I, we applied for that - we were the first ones in - and so being the first cohort team, it was like an empty building, no one was there at the time, and yeah it was actually really cool for us 'cause we went from like being a dorm, to like having this awesome space. But then, they had, an NQ competition where we pitched ProjectVive in front of a shark tank kind of set up at our University, and it was actually aired on WPSU and we got $17,000 from that - which was huge for us at that time.
That's a lot of money yeah.
Yeah and that really just gave us validation, that what we were creating was something that was needed. It also pressed us to do a market analysis and realize that wow, there are so many people that need these type of devices that just can't afford it, or don't know that it exists. So yeah I took advantage of that in college.
So, before we go forward. Something we didn't mention, but I think it's good to insert here is - so jumping ahead for a moment - what is your plan to market the Voz Box at one, two, go to market?
Yeah, so you know I really have a passion for developing countries and also South America. So two things of how we're gonna go to market: One is - there's a lot of trade shows for people with disabilities - so there's ATIA the Assistive Technology International Association, ASHA, and where you can set up a booth and speech-language pathologists, parents, teachers and also a bit of alternative communication users, or people with disabilities that use speech generating devices will come to learn about new technologies. So that's definitely one way. We're also doing kind of grassroots - by reaching out to local disability organizations here in State College, that also have chapters all over the world, so and definitely all over the US - Easterseals, we've done a collaboration with them.
So what is your price point right now - we're projecting, I'm not - we won't hold you to this but what's your projected price point that you'd like to sell it for?
Yeah our projected price point is $500.
Yeah that's for the full communication device. And then also, we're gonna be doing a lot of open source devices that can help you and ways of creating mounting systems on your own, to even get that lower.
It's incredible. Like I see that as such a, I mean, lowering the barrier to entry to almost anyone right. Because I wanted to mention the price point before we move ahead - and so you won the $17,000 then you entered a couple other competitions tell us about those?
Yeah, so we applied for the ALS Association and Prize for Life Assistive Technology Challenge, where we were one of five out of 87 teams, it was an international competition, and we were flown out to Ireland where they brought in...
-Yeah, and they brought in ALS patients from all over the world to try out our technology which was a really important thing for me. I've had two uncles who have passed away with ALS and even though I had a lot of work with people with children and adults with cerebral palsy ALS is a terrible disease and 75% of people with ALS will lose their voice. You have two to five years to live after diagnosis, and to see our devices, that I had created you know, thinking of specifically people in this orphanage but then realizing that people like my uncles could also use these devices. We had someone from Iceland, another person from Japan. We've developed also these little blink detector glasses that you can basically blink to select, and he used those and he loved them, and he was able to spell out a word and just to see someone from Japan, to meet us in Ireland try out our devices, and realize that so many people around the world - not only with cerebral palsy - but with ALS and Rett Syndrome, it just really opened my eyes to the impact that this could have. And also getting this support from the ALS Association was really awesome.
That's an incredible story. You have a video on that also right Elizabeth? Okay, so we're going to share that one as well in the show notes. And the last award that I think you mentioned to me had to do with Cisco right? So tell us about that one. Well I'll let you tell the story, but because I know you had an IndieGoGo campaign too, and a patent, you had lots going on. So spell it out however - how you know - I may be getting these things out of order so.
Actually you're not.
So then - this is actually last summer - we applied for the Cisco Global Problem Solvers, a challenge which was inaugural, it was also the first Global Problem Solver Challenge that they've had. Some recent projects these days are the guinea pig for everything. But yeah, so we applied for that , and I really could talk about my mission, and working with you know, people in Ecuador, and just the low price point and how this - this wasn't just for people in the US, for people in Ecuador, but also we did a little work with a professor in communication disorders, who was in Sri Lanka, we sent a device out to to her where she used it with a boy who was 17 years old , with cerebral palsy. And it's just so many places in the world, don't have access to this type of technology. And in schools and education also, in just adult community life. So we applied for that, made a video for it, and they had this People's Choice Award. So the main award was for $100,000, and the People's Choice was for 10k. And I got everyone to vote for us, you know I sent out to my professors, 'vote for us'! you know ProjectVive, all my friends and family and all of Arlyn's friends and family too. Then that - the day that they were gonna announce it, I kept on refreshing the People's Choice page and all of a sudden I realized that you know this team from Costa Rica won, and I was like, oh man you know, we didn't get the people's choice! And then I checked my email, and it said: 'Congratulations Grand Prize Winner Cisco - - $100,000.'
Oh my gosh, you won a hundred grand!
I know, and I was like, what's going on? That's not 10k, and that I mean, I'm still - I still can't believe it. And you know this - it's been a couple months now - but that just really pumped into our research and development and got us to where we are right now in creating our final product. And yeah, we're just really, really thankful for that support.
That's amazing. I gotta say I'm not surprised, but it's the best story ever. And then so lastly, tell us about the IndieGoGo campaign and - and your Road to Ten Voices that ended up being more than ten voices?
Yeah so we did an IndieGoGo campaign: Journey to Ten Voices and we - I was actually in Ireland for like the end of it - but we raised enough for 14 voices actually, so that was really exciting. And really yeah - that's really allowed us to reach out to the community. For instance, a recipient of one of our Journey to Ten - well 14 Voices - was a 16 year-old, who lives an hour outside of State College and he's doing great. And we also helped him out with a wheelchair gas pedal so he not only is using his speech generating device with an e-sensor, but is also able to independently move around which has been so cool and he's just learning so much from having a device that really wasn't reliable before we helped him. And then you know, just learning from another person, so it's been really cool.
That's something else, we have pictures so when Mary Elizabeth introduced herself to me on LinkedIn she sent me a screenshot of him getting his Voz, and you've never seen a kid smile this big in your life you know. I thought he was gonna rip his ears off with a smile - he was just so happy and it just makes - you can see me also, I got this smile-grin talking to you this whole time. It's just a beautiful story. So now you have seed money right? And so tell us where you are now, and kind of what the next year or so holds as you forge forward?
Yeah - so really, it was a great thing that this whole time we've been working with users, also talking with you know doctors, and teachers that we did the I-Corps Program, where we interviewed 50 people from all over the world. Parents, speech-language pathologists, doctors, teachers, augmentative alternative communication users themselves, and really took one - you know, the user testing that we did, our feedback, what we've learned, the market analysis that we've done - and then also these interviews, to test our assumptions and make our final product. So really what we're developing now - it's the next thing of our beta product and creating something that we believe is going to be able to scale, that we can bring to places like Ecuador and Sri Lanka, and that we're gonna be able to make a sustainable business model on because I know I talked to you about this. We really want to make sure that once we give a voice that we don't take it away, and I think that it's been a great thing that during college I've been able to experiment and test and really have this quick feedback loop and creating something that will make a long lasting impact so that's what we're doing now.
I think that really shows so much a vision on your part actually Mary Elizabeth, because I can't imagine - again I can't imagine giving someone a voice and then having to take it away right, that would be so devastating, and that you've had the foresight to make sure that it's sustainable and and that you're looking at it, not only from an engineering and visionary, but a very practical standpoint to make sure that you're gonna build a solid business. So I really appreciate that about you.
Yeah there's got to be someone there to answer the phones when something goes wrong.
Right, right so I love that you're actually building a sound company and and having good mentors and, and helping you along, and that you have a really solid vision on this. Well what else do we need to talk about? So you're heading towards a scalable product. I think I'll insert here that I got to meet Mary Elizabeth's and project Phoebe's CTO, Trip what's Trip's last name?
Miller, I got to meet Trip Miller and we had a call, so one of the roadblocks that they ran into, is that they were using basically a free design tool that got them this far but they they needed something farther and God bless Altium. They were able to sponsor Mary Elizabeth and ProjectVive, and give them a license of Altium Designer, so they've been having a lot of fun trips - being like a kid in a candy store...
I know, we really have, I mean the trouble that we have gone through and also just working with other collaborators and not being able to get the right schematics for them and and having to basically transfer, not only our Altium files or - I don't want to say that exact names -
Yeah I know, I was trying to avoid that too. Some companies' schematic...
But we've just been able to very quickly start up and I know that it took us about you know four hours to start up our other PCB programs and with Altium, like within an hour, we were creating traces, which was just awesome. So we are so excited and just being able, it's - it's accelerated our development and we're very thankful for it.
We feel lucky, we feel like we get to remove - we get to have the privilege of removing a roadblock for you and just let you charge ahead my dear, so good good for you and Trip. And I'm really glad that we really have the privilege, to do that for you. So we are gonna list in the show notes everything about ProjectVive, the Voz Box, your - like anything you want us to share, let's share it because it's a beautiful story and all of us that love technology, love to see kind of the social aspect of doing good. Doing good in the world, through use of innovation and technology and you're kind of like a STEM-girl poster child which is really fun for me as a woman in tech to see how you came up, and your parents, how they inspired you, and this is really great. What else should we share with the listeners? Have I skipped anything - what else can we talk about, have we missed anything?
Um you know, if you really do feel moved by ProjectVive's story, we do have a fiscal sponsor, so we accept tax-deductible donations and if you go to Projectvive.com - you can hit the donate button or just support us, like us on social media and share our story, and if you have any family members that would be interested in our technology, let us know and we would love to help.
Great - well thank you this has been the highlight of my day and we will also be sharing Mary Elizabeth's story - I've interviewed her already and she will be also in the OnTrack newsletter, coming up in June, and so keep your eyes open for that. If you do not subscribe to the OnTrack newsletter, you can go to our resource hub and subscribe - there's a newsletter tab there, and you can subscribe. So if you're not already subscribed, you can subscribe there and again in the newsletter we'll include all these links in that because we certainly want to put her on the Altium platform, and celebrate all this young innovator's doing. So Mary Elizabeth, you are the best, thank you so much for spending your time today I know you're a busy woman and we'll stay in touch and thank you again for all you're doing, we just think you're wonderful.
Thank you so much Judy, and thank you so much to Altium, and we're just very blessed, thank you so much.
Thank you. Again, this has been Judy Warner with the OnTrack podcast with Mary Elizabeth McCulloch of ProjectVive, we look forward to hanging out with you again on this podcast. Until then, remember to always stay OnTrack.
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