Middle-school students invented tech that can help the blind―and won $10,000
A team of young teens came out on top of the 2021 High School Utah Entrepreneurship Challenge, taking home $10,000 for a vest that alerts its wearers of nearby objects.
Dubbed Acti-Vest, the product develops customizable, wearable vest specifically for visually-impared and blind individuals using ultrasonic sensors to detect nearby objects. It then alerts the wearer through a series of vibrations, varying in pulse depending on closeness.
Who runs the world? Kids
The team is made up almost entirely of middle schoolers: Eli and Sam Eckstein, Sarah Lang, and Lana Chan. Juan Diego Catholic High School freshman Erin Chan, Lana’s sister, is Acti-Vest’s oldest member at 14.
“When I was little, I found my passion for inventing,” says Chan. She says she carried this passion into her first day of robotics club where she eventually met the rest of the Acti-Vest team.
During one of their meetings, a panel of tech industry experts spoke to the students about helping people be more active with technology.
“We learned that one of the biggest issues people with disabilities struggle with is staying active,” Erin says. “Many of the devices and resources that visually impared people have to use, for example, make physical activity hard to do.”
Creating a prototype
Each student was hands on, and poured their individual strengths into the project ––“My sister and I share a passion for mathematics and science, Sarah’s father works in programming, Eli and Sam are creative but logical thinkers,” Erin notes––and went from an idea in November 2020 to the beginnings of a prototype in February.
“We were all new to this kind of work,” Erin says. “We weren’t perfect, and we had to learn a lot about programming, circuit boards, and ultrasonic sensors, but it ended up being really fun.”
Most founders rely on their friends and family for their first round of seed funding, and the Acti-Vest team was no different: for money (and permission) to get their idea off the ground, they had to ask their parents.
“We had a budget,” Erin laughs. “Almost all of our equipment [was found] on Amazon, and I’m pretty sure our prototype vest is from Old Navy.”
Most of the early tests on the sensors were done by the kids themselves. Sarah and Eli took turns being blind-folded with the vest on and playing tag at the park, and other members tried the vest while walking around their neighborhoods. When the Acti-Vest team could feel the sensors, stop before walking into poles, and even be pretty competitive in tag, they knew they had something good.
Finding a market
The Acti-Vest differentiates itself from other resources and helpers for visually impared people, like guide animals and white canes, in two ways: it’s inexpensive and it’s discrete.
The prototype that the team debuted at the competition cost $55 to make, which is minuscule compared to the costs of other popular seeing aids. The low price tag isn’t the biggest takeaway for Erin and her team, though.
“The independence aspect of this is our main focus,” Erin says. “Those with disabilities often have to have others constantly guiding them, and have to rely on help for many tasks. Many of those aids, while offering some independence, still hinder individuals from doing everything they want to do. We want to help them live the life they want to live.”
The Acti-Vest team was designing, developing, and demoing for fun when they heard about the HSUEC. “We thought if we entered it, we could boost the project,” Erin says.
Due to the business competition’s age restrictions, only Erin was able to actually participate in the HSUEC. She pitched the team’s slide deck alone, demonstrating the increasing demand for free-form disability aids, and making a solid case for a business opportunity, enough that the panel of judges doled out five digits.
Just the beginning
Acti-Vest isn’t Erin’s, or even the other four students’, first dive into the business world. Erin spent the past five years entering business competitions with her little sister. The Acti-Vest team also competed in an environmental tech challenge, finding solutions for greater accessibility to clean water.
The team has already spent most of their grand prize winnings on a patent for the technology in the vest.
“We have a provisional patent right now,” Erin says. “The next step is to develop stronger vibration motors, speed up reaction times, and hopefully create more prototypes that we could eventually take to mass production.”