Hoping to help a friend’s stroke rehabilitation grew into an award-winning recovery device built by an enterprising local high schooler who has launched a company to improve health care in developing nations.
Carlmont High School senior Selena Sun won the Regeneron Science Talent Search for her work creating a sensor designed to help stroke survivors in Ethiopia track their physical therapy.
And while recognition may have been the end of the road for some, Sun, 18, said she was inspired to continue the work which she considers both a calling and career opportunity.
With the help of a couple San Francisco State University professors, Sun started a business which will eventually manufacture and distribute her wearable technology to patients across the world.
And while fundraising, patent writing and the host of other tasks associated with incorporating a company were not part of her initial plan, Sun said she is more than willing to take them on if they get her closer to providing care for those in need.
“If to launch a product is a means to help patients, then I’m happy to do it,” she said.
‘The most amazing experience’
Sun was inspired to design her device after witnessing her friend labor through physical rehabilitation in the aftermath of sustaining a brain injury. Noting travel challenges for patients with limited mobility, Sun wanted to smooth the road to recovery while also offering better data to physicians.
Leveraging her passion for engineering and robotics, Sun built an arm sensor capable of tracking incremental upper limb motion such as acceleration, movement time and distance — all indicators of function and progress for a patient.
The device is especially useful in rural sub-Saharan communities where medical centers are a rare resource and patients can face trips as long as six hours to meet with doctors or rehabilitation specialists, said Sun.
Additionally, the product manufactured using 3D printing technology is relatively cheap compared to other similar devices, said Sun, making it more easily accessible for those with limited resources.
“Everything is designed with low cost in mind,” she said.
To test the device’s effectiveness in its target demographic, Sun traveled with her colleague Charmayne Hughes to Ethiopia last summer and met with patients as well as medical professionals. She considered the trip “the most amazing experience,” but also encountered unanticipated hurdles when running product trials.
Sun said a major issue was some of the patients had a stroke only a short time before testing the device, limiting their ability to complete the exercises designed for the sensor. And while she had devised an auxiliary activity which some testers were able to complete, she said the experience opened her mind to potential refinements.
The device also needed to be made more sleek and comfortable, similar to a wrist watch, said Sun, as the initial product was rudimentary and too bulky for some users.
Design improvements will be made once the company is established and new versions are rolled out, said Sun, who is the chief technology officer of T’ena Technologies — the company she launched with Hughes and another colleague.
In the meantime, Sun said much of her time is consumed by writing code for the app component to the device, which tracks sensor data, shares it with medical professionals and informs users on healthy habits.
She is meeting with potential investors, filing for patents, writing research materials and managing a variety of other administrative tasks too, while also finishing school and participating in extracurricular activities such as competing with her robotics team.
In all, Sun estimated she is working several hours per week on the business, with hopes of ramping that up in the summer once her school obligations fall away. For the time being though, she considers balancing the enterprise with other activities a grand time management challenge.
“I’m pretty much using every minute of my day as productively as possible,” she said.
As a pivotal next step, Sun is slated to take another trip back to Ethiopia in May with hopes of launching her product, which she expects to eventually sell for about $10. Should all go according to plan, she is optimistic the it could be ready for domestic release the following January.
She measured those expectations though with acknowledgement that the work is prolonged and requires steady refinements according to feedback from patient testing, medical professors, business partners and others.
“The process is not something we can do with a snap of our fingers,” she said.
Recognition and validation
Not to get too far ahead of herself, Sun also reflected on the hard work leading her to the verge of incorporating her company, which hit a high point when she won the Regeneron contest.
Known as one of the nation’s most competitive high school science contests, Sun said the acknowledgement fueled her desire to push the initiative ahead.
“That was a lot of validation and recognition for my work that I didn’t really expect,” said Sun.
Considering the award an incredible honor, Sun took home a $2,000 award and Carlmont High School received a similar amount. Since then, Sun said she has advocated for administration to spend the school’s portion toward hosting a school science fair.
Ultimately, Sun said she would like to serve as a source of inspiration for future students to leverage their interest in science and related fields into making the world a better place.
Looking to her seemingly bright future though, Sun said she is optimistic her hard work will lead to a development of a product that can improve the quality of life for people across the globe.
“I want it to be something that can actually help people rehabilitate and make rehabilitation accessible to them,” she said.
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