EVANSTON, Ill. — There is a new innovation to help patients continue an old-fashioned habit. Two resourceful college students put their heads together so those with Parkinson’s disease can put pen to paper.
Izzy Mokotoff attends Northwestern University.
“My grandfather had Parkinson’s disease for about a decade and he had a lifelong love of writing,” Mokotoff said.
She says his handwritten letters and cards are her treasures.
“His Parkinson’s symptoms reached sort of a debilitating stage and he lost the ability to write, which for him wasn’t only a loss of ability but also a loss of self,” she said. “Because writing was so integral to his identity and who he was and what he loved to do.”
The journalism major researched possible solutions.
“And very quickly realized there isn’t anything on the market designed specifically for people with Parkinson’s to counteract their most writing-inhibitive symptoms,” Mokotoff said.
Frustrated, she sought the advice of her Northwestern University classmate Alexis Chan, a biomedical engineering student.
“She was like, ‘What if we do something about it?’” Mokotoff said.
Now juniors, the two friends got started in 2021 with grant applications and interviews with target customers and those who treat them.
“Doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, loved ones of those with Parkinson’s disease and Alexis really got to prototyping,” Mokotoff said. “She was kind of a machine she was cranking them out.”
They were able to utilize the university’s makerspace, nicknamed “The Garage.” It’s a communal workshop where student engineers and innovators harness the collective brainpower of their peers.
“The definition of rapid iteration,” Mokotoff said.
It’s where technology manager Jake Juracka helped the team grow their product in scope and scale with each pass of the 3D printer.
But it was the university’s jumpstart program that gave the entrepreneurs a major boost.
“You commit to working 10 weeks fulltime on your venture and you are initially awarded $10,000,” Mokotoff said. “That’s when we went from clunky, not really functional prototypes, to something that people with Parkinson’s, including my grandfather, tried and loved. … I was calling him every day asking for feedback. I was having my grandmother film him writing so we could study the movements of his writing.”
“The actual pen tip and the ink is a normal ballpoint pen that you would have,” Chan said. “But we actually custom built everything around just that pure ballpoint pen.”
Each component of their “SteadyScrib” set is designed to counter writing-inhibitive symptoms of Parkinson’s including tremor, slowness of movement and a small, cramped writing style.
“It’s difficult for people to sort of move quickly and feel like their hand has a natural pathway across the page,” Mokotoff said.
A weighted feel combined with the magnetic force help the hand glide across the page more smoothly.
“It has a pen with magnets in the tip of the pen that align with our steel backing and this is important because the magnetic attraction counteracts the unwanted movements from tremors.” Chan said.
The result is larger, more intentional movement and ultimately, more legible lettering. They tested the set with patients at Northwestern Medicine’s Lake Forest hospital last summer.
“And we went back last week, and people liked it even better, which just gets me also as an engineer, just super excited that we can keep innovating, keep improving, taking people’s feedback,” Chan said. “And it’s just really gratifying.”
Now, Chan and Mokotoff hope their invention will make its mark.
“We want to get it in the hands of as many people with Parkinson’s as possible,” Mokotoff said.
At this point, the design is nearly finalized – they’re just making some small tweaks to get the set ready for large-scale production. The team is looking for manufacturing partners with the hope to bring the SteadyScrib to patients as soon as possible.