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Shop Drop Roll

The winners of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, which honors promising collegiate inventors around the country, have just been announced, and an Olin team of seniors and mechanical engineering majors—Mica Chiang, Andrew Holmes and Daniel Daugherty—has been selected as one of just a handful of finalists. The competition brought in ideas from 125 teams of undergraduate students and individual graduate students who submitted inventions, and the team was chosen from a competitive pool of applicants from across the country. 

The intensive application process started last fall, when Mica, Andrew and Daniel applied in hopes of moving a project forward they’ve been passionately pursuing for nearly two years.

It started when they met Terri, a woman in her late 60s who uses a wheelchair, during their sophomore year Engineering for Humanity class. The course’s challenge was to create a product for a local older adult community partner. In working with Terri, the team built their first version of a device that enables bags to be stored on the back of a wheelchair, called Shop Drop Roll. The product was a success in its initial form and they’ve continued to work on improving it ever since.

Terri is unable to fully turn her body and reach bags resting on the back of her chair. Before the invention of Shop Drop Roll,she carried her grocery bags on her lap and around the handles of her wheelchair, which was uncomfortable and made accessing her bags difficult and dangerous. “We saw that shopping itself was hard—and getting groceries home was even harder,” says Daniel. When Terri arrived home, she would attempt to remove the bags on her chair by locking her wheels, wedging her chair against the wall and tipping it to slide the bags off of the handles. “The process was not only cumbersome, but posed significant safety issues,” says Andrew.

The expected answer to the challenges Terri faced in transporting her groceries would be to switch to in-home grocery delivery services, so she wouldn’t need to go shopping herself. But when Andrew, Mica and Daniel joined Terri on a supermarket trip to see how she navigated the store using her wheelchair and spent time with her in her home, they discovered that cutting out shopping altogether was not the answer. For Terri, who lives alone, grocery shopping isn’t necessarily so much about getting food, but is also a vital social outlet: a chance to make small talk, catch up with the butcher, exercise independence and simply participate in her localcommunity.

“We found that there aren’t products on the market that enable easy, independent access to items on the back of a wheelchair,” says Andrew. The team’s Shop Drop Roll solution is a custom wheelchair attachment that simplifies the transport and accessibility of goods. They designed a frame—painted purple, Terri’s favorite color—that attaches to the back of her wheelchair and detaches by pulling on a lever. It allows Terri to turn around and access groceries without getting out of the chair or needing help. For Terri, the rack eased the physical challenges of shopping while enhancing her ability to engage with others in a meaningful way. Using the device, Terri feels unencumbered (as she explains in this video) and goes grocery shopping more often.

Terri’s reaction inspired the team to continue developing Shop Drop Roll, in the hopes of improving the lives of other people who use wheelchairs. “After seeing how much it impacted one person, we realized that we could work with the wheelchair community to really make a difference in other people’s lives,” says Mica. Since they delivered the first version to Terri in May 2017, the team, which until recently also included Babson student Sunny Chae '18, has taken steps to develop the product for a wider range of people. In addition to engaging with many people who use wheelchairs, they’ve applied for (and won) grants and competitions, presented their product at expositions, developed small customer bases, partnered with the Blue Cross Blue Shield innovation team to gain industry connections and enrolled in follow-up entrepreneurship courses.

And now, they’ve got invaluable experience under their belt having gone through the competition. It prompted the team to switch from designing specifically for one person to designing for many people, and they delved enthusiastically into unfamiliar territory: material durability, commercialization, selling price and manufacturability. “We looked at aspects of the product—like the life span of the materials and recyclability—that we hadn’t thought of earlier,” says Mica.

Judges liked what they saw and gave them feedback over winter break. “That pushed us to think about pivoting more,” says Daniel. They reworked the application, having realized that the design needed to be more scalable. “Through the competition, we realized we needed to adjust the design, because everyone’s chair is different, and everyone’s level of mobility is different. It was eye-opening to take a step back and create a product that’s more beneficial to more users.” 

Since then, the team hasn’t stopped iterating. “Going through this process made us think critically about every single aspect of this,” says Andrew. “We want to be sure we are making the right product.” They’ve now rethought what they want to do with the product, and have come up with totally different prototypes that still make use of the real estate on the back of the chair. “It’s a big shift and we probably wouldn’t have done it without doing this competition, because it forced us to think more critically,” says Mica.

They’re sticking with the fundamentals of their original concept, however, and it will be low-tech, easy to use and affordable. Their innovation will still hold the potential to make a profound impact on its users by being attentive to what matters most to them: helping them to engage with the world on their own terms, independently, but while connected with community.

There is considerable evidence abouthow people with physical disabilities can suffer from physical and mental decline due to isolation and the impact of feeling dependent on others. There is also evidence of the adverse impacts of loneliness on mental health. “By enabling people with disabilities to travel more independently with their belongings, this innovation promises to make an important impact on health and well-being for the many older adults and other people with disabilities in our society, and in other societies around the world,” says Caitrin Lynch, Ph.D., professor of Anthropology, who introduced the team to Terri originally.

From their start working with Terri, to the nearly two years of subsequent work, the team has not wavered in their dedication and plans to continue to try to bring it to market together after graduation. “In my 15 years of teaching engineers, I have never seen a team stay so passionate about a class project, long after the class ended,” says Lynch. “I am proud to be connected to a team that is so motivated to make such a positive difference in the world.”