The DRIFTS device is designed to help ease the tremors experienced by people suffering diseases like Parkinson’s.At Israel’s GeronTech, they take old age seriously. The non-profit organization is one of the leading centers in the world for the design and development of elderly and disabled friendly products, and already has an impressive array of goods on the market.
“GeronTech is sort of an incubator for ideas on innovative projects to make the lives of the disabled and elderly easier,” says Lawrence Normie, director of GeronTech.
“We check out projects developed by scientists and engineers, and do our own research and development as well. We provide guidance and direction, based on our rich experience in this area, and in other cases we help arrange for financial assistance, sort of like an ‘angel’ would do in the high-tech world,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
Designing products for the elderly is not like designing products for the general public. Ordinary day-to-day tasks are often harder, and those working in the industry must employ a special mix of industrial design, mechanical engineering and common sense.
Founded 10 years ago, GeronTech is involved in a range of products, from physical assistance devices that make it easier to transport people, to software designed to stimulate the mind and ward off diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
GeronTech checks out products or proposals much as a venture capital fund does. Normie and his staff do their “due diligence,” checking with engineering, financial, and marketing experts on whether the product is practical, and what, if any market there would be for it. Once a product or idea is vetted, GeronTech decides how it can be of greatest help in getting it to the market, Normie explains.
Products adopted by Gerontech include Smart-Step by Andante Medical Devices, a specially designed biofeedback device for individuals with orthopedic problems who cannot walk properly.
The device, attached to the insole of a shoe, measures the way an individual walks – pressure, footfalls, direction – and generates prompt signals (tactile and auditory) to the user to correct gait. The measured gait information is then transmitted to a database, where a therapist can check it out and prescribe a customized therapeutic program that can deal with the problem more accurately.
Another product, called MindFit, by Cognifit Mind Solutions, is a computer program designed to improve cognitive skills, such as eye-hand coordination, visual or auditory short-term memory, location, planning, etc. Brain exercises such as these have been shown to be effective in delaying the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and can help elderly people remain “sharper” longer.
In both cases, GeronTech provided the makers of these products with technical advice, connections and seed funding.
To date, GeronTech’s most significant project has been DRIFTS – or Dynamically Responsive Intervention for Tremor Suppression. The device, which can be attached to the body easily, is designed for people with diseases like Parkinson’s who suffer from severe tremors and find day-to-day actions difficult, if not impossible.
Using a set of embedded sensors and actuators, the DRIFTS device compensates for the tremors the wearer experiences, and steadies the hand. The system takes constant readings and issues compensation commands in response to the current tremor state – meaning that the patient is now able to function in a more or less normal manner.
To create the DRIFTS product, GeronTech coordinated the project with research centers and universities throughout Europe, and arranged for most of the funding for the project from the European Commission.
What makes GeronTech so unusual is its practicality. In the US and Europe, according to Normie, many of the groups working in this area are affiliated with universities. Research is more geared to application of theoretical principles, which may or may not result in a final product.
“We wanted something more practical, that would be able to hatch actual products more efficiently,” says Normie.
To make progress smoother, GeronTech partners with two major organizations with years of experience in meeting the needs of the elderly and disabled: Eshel, a project of the Joint Distribution Committee in Israel, which is a major initiator and coordinator of programs for the elderly and disabled in Israel; and the New York-based Metropolitan Jewish Health System, which since the early 1900s has provided care via home health workers and in a large number of affiliated nursing homes.
GeronTech is definitely on the right track, says Normie, who previously was a consultant to various R&D funding agencies, including Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist. In fact, computer giant Intel now has a department researching computer-based products designed for aging.
GeronTech, meanwhile, intends to continue expanding its activities in Israel and abroad. Aside from its work developing products, it also offers mentoring, expertise and logistical assistance to governments and private companies working in the area.
“We wanted to import the idea of developing products for the elderly and disabled here into Israel, which is how GeronTech was developed with the help of Eshel and MHJS,” he says. “Now we are exporting ideas and technologies.”