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Anupam Pathak: Empathy Driven Design

--Bela Shah, on Jun 20, 2013

As a young boy, he loved taking things apart and rebuilding things, understanding how mysterious phenomenon like electricity worked.  As he grew up, Anupam Pathak’s love for science followed him into his doctoral studies, where he was learning electro-mechanical engineering and materials science.  But unveiling the mysteries of science were not the only motivation behind Anupam’s work.  Co-existing with intellectual drive was compassion. So it wasn’t difficult for him to imagine a healthcare design company driven by empathy rather than profit. 

On Saturday’s Forest Call, we learned how empathy and compassion, combined with talent and persistence, impact an engineer’s motivation and purpose for product design.  Anupam shared with Vinya Vasu and the rest of the callers how his love for science and desire to create a better world merged forces to create Lift Labs, a company devoted to social good.

“I wanted to help people who were suffering everyday. With the products that we develop, our team tries to help conditions like Essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease disappear into the background so that people can live their lives with dignity.”

Vinya: Can you describe some of these products?

Anupam: A lot of people with Essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease are embarrassed about their condition and they don’t want to attract attention to themselves.  The LiftWare spoon that we designed is effective in allowing people with these conditions to feed themselves without spilling.   We’ve developed a system that senses the person’s tremor and moves in the opposite direction from it. 

 It’s really a loss of dignity when a person can’t feed him or her self so seeing someone go from assisted feeding to being able to eat independently is really amazing.

V: Who or what have been your inspirations?  It’s not often that we see compassion as an essential driving force in a capitalist society.
 
A: There is this industrial engineer that I learned about…he was interviewing people with missing limbs in order to develop prosthetics that suited their unique personalities. This way, an individual that had to use prosthetics felt comfortable and even proud. For example, there was one person who was into wood working so this designer made the prosthetic out of wood.  
 
In the past a lot of the medical devices in prosthetics were designed for function and less driven by empathy. I think that is the direction we really need to go in terms of designing, especially for people who are already feeling embarrassed with the conditions that they have right now.
 
V: Can you share some stories that emerged through the use of this spoon?

A: Last summer we conducted formal clinical trials at the University of Michigan hospital and we had 15 people come through with essential tremor. We conducted a blind test on them with the LiftWare spoons, not telling individuals in the group whether the spoon was on or off. The difference was like night and day; spilling everywhere versus being able to feed yourself without any assistance.

I had one person use the spoon for 2 weeks and she shared that it not only makes a difference with feeding, but also with cooking. For example, if she needed to measure ingredients, before she would have to ask for her husband’s help but now she can do it independently.

The most touching story she shared involved spending time with her friend’s baby. Before she would have never been able to help with feeding the baby but now, with the spoon we designed, she is able to!

V: What is the vission of Lift Labs moving forward?

A: Mobile apps are another direction we’re looking into. The goal is to help patients feel empowered by understanding their chronic condition. For example, with tremor, patients are taking various drugs and therapies but it’s just trial and error because there is no quantifiable way to measure whether it’s working. So the Lift Pulse is an app that can measure a person’s tremor using the sensors in their smart phone and it’s free.

A related project and something that might develop more in the future is a way to track people’s medication history over time and its impact on tremor.

V: Scientists are usually considered left brained while emotions such as empathy are generated in the right part of the brain. But you’re an empathetic scientist. What helps you to develop that balance between the right and left parts of the brain?

A: It’s all about being able to work well with other people. It’s not sustainable to develop products and ideas in a vacuum. In my work, there is a heavy reliance on feedback from people who would be using the products we’re designing. In developing the spoon, we were in touch with several support groups from the bay area and we wouldn’t have been able to do this if not for them. I was getting feedback from them at least once a month and am still getting feedback. Our first priority is to make something that would help them so having them as part of the process is really important.

The second thing is having a good team and an environment of nurturing and growth for the people involved. They should be getting something out of it, whether it’s satisfaction or experience and knowledge. I’ve been trying to be conscious of making sure that everyone working on this is getting something back and that their plate is full from that perspective too.

V: Changing topics a bit, can you tell us about how your mother and you came up with the idea of creating Explorabox?

A: My mom is a retired semiconductor engineer and she started volunteering in kids’ math and science classes. By explaining basic concepts to them, she began to see how helpful it was to demonstrate these concepts in a fun way. The idea of the Explorabox kits came because we were trying to figure out how to reach more kids, especially the ones that attend schools with fewer resources.

Everyone involved in Explorabox is a volunteer with some sort of engineering or science background. We try to create very simple experiments that illustrate basic phenomenon such as magnetism and electricity.

And we would love to expand Explorabox to other countries, including India. The kits can be open sourced in made in other countries with instructions in the language of that country.

Audrey: Do you integrate current science related problems into your kits, for example climate change and waste reduction?

A: We don’t have a sustainability box yet! But one thing we’re working on is a nutrition kit because childhood obesity and diabetes are huge problems. Through the kit, kids are able to see for themselves and understand the consequences of consuming the quantity of sugar that comes in a can of coke.

Bela: Because you’re motivation is creating empathy driven technology for people with diseases, how do you try to ensure that these products are actually accessible to the larger population? Do you have a great vision of making these products accessible in developing countries?

A: Accessibility is something we’re trying to figure out. There is a potential for some sort of pay it forward model; if someone is buying a product for themselves or a family member, they have the option to donate some amount and we can match that donation so that the product becomes affordable for others. We’re also looking into how to reduce the costs of our materials so that the final product is less expensive.

V: What advice do you have for others that want to “take the road less traveled by”?

A: Being persistent is important, but it’s not about just sticking with one idea and being inflexible. There are different ways of reaching whatever goal you’re trying to get to. The idea may change completely while you’re working on it and you shouldn’t be afraid of this. As long as you’re receiving good feedback along the way and remain persistent, then you’ll reach your final goal.