The 2 students, junior systems engineering and design major Fiona Kalensky and junior marketing major Isak Massman, designed the companion animal for a student organization Design for America.
“We were given two words to explore and develop solutions for: caregiver fatigue. Immediately, we began interviewing and collecting stories of caregivers and their loved ones in the surrounding area,” said Kalensky in a press release.
“One interview, in particular, was with a woman and her husband who had Alzheimer’s. Throughout the course of the interview, he would get up and begin to wander or become agitated, and she would pause and tend to him,” said Kalensky. “This cycle that kept repeating until their Yorkie came into the room and hopped onto his lap and his demeanor changed almost instantly. He sat there petting the dog, rocking back and forth and began to verbalize with the group. And we were able to carry out the rest of the interview without any more interruptions.”
This interaction is what inspired the idea behind Therapalz. The students wanted to recreate the therapeutic effects of live animals for people who can’t afford to take care of or have access to animals.
Approximately 200,000 Americans who are younger than 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It is the most common type of dementia and causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms can get more severe over time and begin to interfere with daily tasks.
Therapalz received $10,000 in seed funding from the University of Illinois Research Park where they worked on the project for 2 months.
“While at Research Park, we built a great network with people in the University and with alumni in Chicago. Despite the transition into the school year, we have been able to keep up demos with users and caregivers,” said Massman.
Massman joined Kalensky to help with the 2016 Cozad competition.
“I came on just thinking I would help out for a little while. We ended up making it to the finals of Cozad and winning admission into the iVenture Accelerator,” said Massman.
Therapalz won first place in the Saint Louis University-hosted “Real” Elevator Pitch Competition in December 2016. Upon winning, the team received $200 in funding from IllinIdeas Competition and was named one of Illinois’s top 10 student startups.
Because it won Cozad, Therapalz can start the manufacturing process.
“Since we have begun, there has always been this enormous hurdle of how are we going to manufacture,” said Massman. “We have heard so many horror stories of startups in the early stages of manufacturing going all the way to China where it comes very complicated because so many people are involved. If we can mitigate those problems and make it easier for ourselves, we are definitely going to do that.”
They are currently going through the process to begin manufacturing. They want to make sure they will have a product that can actually help people.
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