Judy Warner: It’s so nice to talk with you, Mary Elizabeth! Please share your background, education and what inspired you to choose engineering as a vocation.
Mary Elizabeth McCulloch: I was always good at science and math and I graduated from Penn State University with a biomedical degree in 2016. Both of my parents were very inspirational in my choice to pursue engineering. My Dad studied physics in college and is now an engineer who specializes in electronics and mechanical design for CNC control systems. My mother is a biomedical engineer — and worked in artificial heart research. As a family on a farm, we were always working on and tinkering with things. Growing up, my dad was always extremely resourceful and clever and would pull me into projects or challenge me. We have doctors in our extended family and I thought I was going to be a doctor as well. Later, I realized I could have a bigger impact by working in electronics for people with disabilities.
Arlyn Edelstein and Mary Elizabeth McCulloch
Warner: What kind of projects did you do with your dad when you were a kid?
McCulloch: I always tinkered as a kid. If I had an idea my dad would say, “Let’s build it!” If I drew some flowers, he would say we could mill them out to decorate my room. We would buy cheap parts on Alibaba and make little inventions. I was always encouraged to get out of my comfort zone and serve by solving problems.
Warner: What inspired you to start Project Vive?
McCulloch: I was an international exchange student that was sponsored by the Rotary. Spanish was a challenge for me, so I chose Ecuador so I could improve. While there, I volunteered through church group for a camp for kids with disabilities in orphanages and in the community called Cristo Vive. These camps served kids with different disabilities and it gave their parents a break while giving the children a chance to go to camp. There were many kids with cerebral palsy that had lost their ability to speak. I met a girl named Christina just sitting in a corner and I tried to begin communicating with her by asking yes and no questions. It took me awhile to realize she had some ability to communicate through parts of her body she could control. Soon she was able to answer my yes/no questions and communicate with me and her whole face and demeanor brightened.
Arlyn Edelstein collaborating on the Voz Box with McCulloch
Warner: What impact did that have on you, and how did that inspire you to try to create a speech-generating device?
McCulloch: After I left Ecuador and as I began my freshman year at college, it really hit me hard — all the people I was leaving behind and all the lost opportunities as they just went back to not being able to communicate and they were prisoners inside their own bodies. I struggled knowing they still weren’t speaking. It gave me a burning desire to work with orphans and the experience opened my eyes to how fortunate I had been all my life. I felt I had to do something to help, so I entered an engineering competition for a medical device that could generate speech. I submitted it, but I didn’t win. Then I realized, I’m not doing this for a competition, I was doing it for people like Christina who didn’t have access to speech-generating devices.
Warner: What did you do after that competition to drive your idea forward and what technologies did you employ or create?
Mary Elizabeth McCulloch founder of ProjectVive
McCulloch: I applied for my first patent as a freshman. I was using Arduino, Raspberry Pi, parts from Adafruit and working on the weekends. I made an observation that everyone who had cerebral palsy or ALS had some movement in their body that they were able to control which could act as an indicator of choices on a menu that I could serve up to allow them to communicate. By the end of my sophomore year I had it working. By my junior year the university began to recognize and help develop entrepreneurs. They helped me enter contests and I became increasingly aware that I wanted this to become a for-profit company. I wanted to ensure that I didn’t give away this device and then disappear. I had noticed when I was in Ecuador that many donated devices were broken and people got so excited to gain a voice, but only until the device broke and then their hopes were dashed. There was no way I wanted to give people a voice, and then take it away!
Warner: Tell us more about the contest your entered, the awards you’ve won, and when your patent was awarded.
McCulloch: Mentors at Penn State connected us to the Happy Valley LaunchBox, which was a brand new accelerator. We were the first to have access to the space and we were in heaven! We competed in “The Investment” which was a shark-tank style competition between startups from three different universities which we won and with it $17,000. We were a finalist in the ALS Assistive Tech Challenge hosted by the ALS Association and Prize4Life. We were flown out to Ireland and had people with ALS from all around the world try out our new technology. Then we entered the Global Problem Solver Challenge sponsored by Cisco and won the grand prize of $100,000 dollars. That was a game-changer that allowed us to have seed money to actually begin building a company. Our patent was awarded one week before we kicked off our Indiegogo campaign that was used to raise money to give ten voices. We exceeded that goal and were able to give away thirteen voices. It has been an amazing journey! (See the inspiring video HERE.)
McCulloch and CTO Trip Martin testing glove sensor
Warner: It really is amazing! What are your current goals?
McCulloch: We are working toward a final working prototype that we can scale into production. We have been testing our core assumptions by talking to parents, special education teachers, disability specialists, speech pathologists, ALS researchers, and physical and occupational therapists. We need to ensure that our device is both safe and effective. We have completed a lot of research with users and experts. It is very uncommon to include users in the design process, but Arlyn and Godfrey have been key in informing us of what is important. These people are brilliant problem solvers because they have been solving complex problems for years! It has been so helpful to remove our able-bodied mindsets and really find out what is important. Even to the point of realizing it is an accessory — so they care how it looks. How does it feel? How will people look at them? Many don’t like being looked at by people and don’t want a clunky device that draws more unwanted attention. It needs to integrate into their lifestyle.
Warner: I’m very impressed by the level of collaboration and thought you’ve put into this with your users. When do you hope to launch production?
Glove Sensor and controller
McCulloch: It is in beta testing right now. We will then move to the final schematic, layout and assembly of the boards. We expect it will be about three to four months before we have ten fully functional boards. Then we have to program the firmware. We hope to have this all done by the end of this year.
Warner: How do you plan to take it to market?
McCulloch: There are several assistive device conferences in which we plan to exhibit. We have an existing partnership with Easter Seals to do a beta launch. We also plan to do a pilot launch in Ecuador at two hospitals and two schools where we will place twenty-five devices and gather data. We also plan to place some in Sri Lanka.
16-year old Aaron--ProjectVive’s most recent voice recipient
Warner: Well, I have shared your website and technology with many people at Altium and you have certainly made a lot of fans at our San Diego office. Thank you so much for sharing your incredible story with us. We wish you every success!
McCulloch: Thank you, Judy! We are so grateful that you are spreading awareness for Project Vive.
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