Born with cerebral palsy, Adriana Mallozzi experienced the life-changing possibilities of technology early in her life. Her experiences led her to conceptualize a game-changing new concept for assistive technology for people living with catastrophic illnesses or injuries: Puffin was born. This is the story of a new take on puff-and-sip technology that could drastically improve everyday access for people living with physical disabilities.
What makes the Puffin unique?
A puff-and-sip device allows someone living with paralysis to operate a power chair with their mouth just by sucking in air and expelling it again. The Puffin takes it a step further by allowing you to operate not just your chair but also your phone and other connected devices seamlessly through one device.
The Puffin enables individuals with disabilities to directly access their mobile devices and operate them. You can, for example, turn the lights off, access your Roku box right from your chair, shop, or make travel arrangements. You can call 911 or an emergency contact in the event of a medical crisis. We plan on expanding this connection further so the Puffin can integrate with additional emergency access devices like Life Alert.
The majority of today’s assistive technology does not understand the real needs of its users. Universal design is not evolving at the same rate as technological advancements. There are so many assistive devices that a user must adjust to, instead of the other way around. The Puffin uses machine learning to make the device operate more efficiently over time by adapting to your preferences and habits.
We know that accessibility can be defined in many different ways. Our goal is complete accessibility; that includes a new puff-and-sip design that’s both portable and affordable. The Puffin is unique because our device is user-centric, learning from your input and requiring just one device to access multiple other pieces of technology. As technology advances, so will our device.
Walk us through Puffin’s origin story.
Having a disability pushed me to be innovative in my approach to everything. My love for technology started when I was seven and my occupational therapist introduced me to assistive technology that allowed me to use a computer by myself. It was my first taste of independence and I was hooked!
The idea for the Puffin had been floating around in my head for a while. I love to travel, but typically I don’t bring my power chair for various reasons, and as a result, I feel cut off from everything. Like everyone else these days, I am dependent on personal electronics and the need to always stay connected. I knew that I needed to develop technology that was portable, that could shift and travel with me.
I got the opportunity to submit my idea to the MIT Assistive Technology Hackathon in 2015. I was one of 13 people chosen to participate, and I won first place. Four talented MIT engineering students took my vision and built a prototype. From there, I formed a team with Shana Penna, my co-founder and COO. We received funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Mass Life Sciences Internship Competition. Puffin became a MassChallenge Boston 2017 finalist. It is incredible to finally see my vision come to fruition.
Can access to technology improve your quality of life?
Access to technology can improve someone’s life in a multitude of ways. The more support a person has, the better their health will be. Technology can make a tremendous impact when it comes to providing support to someone living with a disability. Here are some examples:
- Technology can allow someone to get an education so they can potentially get a better job and improve their economic situation.
- Technology can connect someone to an online banking platform and other financial tools so they can better manage and even increase their net worth.
- If a newly-injured person has access to their community through social media platforms, they can experience a greater level of support, which can help them to psychologically cope with the injury.
One of the big impacts of technology is greater independence. There is a quantifiable impact on a person’s life if they feel dependent and immobile. It affects every part of who they are.
Can cost be a barrier to technology access and mobility?
Assistive technology is a great example of health-related expenses gone awry. When things have the assistive technology label on them, the cost of the product rises exponentially. Costs can prohibit someone with a disability from attaining essential technologies. This is why affordability is a factor in our initiative.
To be accessible, this technology needs to be affordable for all users. That philosophy influences our development process and forces us to think outside the box. We have learned that thinking about technology from a user-cost perspective actually adds value to our product, because that creativity can lead to novel ideas.
How does hope tie into your vision for Puffin?
For us, especially for me personally, hope is directly reflected in this project. We hope that everyone can access the same level of technology that I have been able to access myself. We hope to enhance the lives of people with disabilities by providing a higher level of access than any of us have experienced before. To us, hope is assistive technology that is accessible for all.
How can readers support Puffin?
A new crowdfunding campaign will help to cover our costs for patent filing, branding, and keeping the project moving forward. You can make a pledge to the campaign online right now, or help us spread the word by following Puffin and sharing our content on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @puffinsip.
You can learn more about Puffin at puffinsip.com or by visiting the Easter Seals booth #549 at the Abilities Expo in Boston September 8-10, 2017. In addition to Adriana, the contributors to this interview were Puffin’s Shana Penna, “wannabe innovator”, co-founder, and COO; and Marian Herman-Echkah, mechanical engineer.