Jade Garrett admits to knowing very little about launching a business or developing hardware from scratch. She's into software, and she's pretty good at it. With the help of George Mason University's Mason Innovation Lab, she's able to combine those elements to create something that's not only tactile and salable, it's also helpful to those with special needs.
Garrett, who is pursuing an applied information technology degree from the Volgenau School of Engineering, spent the summer working on a toy bear that is also a computer game controller. Designed for children with autism, the plush bear answers several needs across the autism spectrum. For instance, a plush animal is easier for some to hold for longer periods of time than a controller, and those with motor-control issues find the buttons easier to use than a track ball or keyboard.
The bear is named Computer Assisted Device Input Bear, CADI for short, and pronounced "Caddy." It's still in the prototype stage, but with the help of the School of Business' Mason Innovation Lab and the Lab for IT Entrepreneurship, the bear is coming out of hibernation and making the rounds as Garrett meets those in the business of creating businesses for those with special needs.
In the special education community, the bear has been "received very well," says Garrett, who is also president of the Mason Inventor's Club. "Teachers tell me they can't even use computers for the severely physically impaired, but this could improve outcomes for them," because it would remove that computer anxiety.
Garrett also wants to make it easier on parents and special education teachers by developing a web application that will track and record metrics about the child while they are playing a game with the bear. She is currently working on the software, which will generate a report showing if the child has been able to master a skill, such as better accuracy or cognition of a subject.
Mason faculty and staff have helped her fill in a business plan, identify a market, conduct focus groups to hone the idea and "have conversations to see the viability and opportunities" with those in business.
So far, the single mother has spent $2,000 on the bear; some funding came from a Google contest, the rest of her own upfront funding is reimbursed by the Innovation Lab. She's driven by an innate need to help others, not by profits.
"I used to teach adapted aquatics, teaching people without limbs or with cerebral palsy or autism how to swim," she says, adding that having a baby took her out of the pool. "But I still like helping people learn. I probably wouldn't find a lot of interest in it if it was just for the money. I could get a job programming, but I'd rather do something to feel like I'm making a change."