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Draper Journal

Juan Diego students come up with solutions to real-life problems in entrepreneur challenge

Aug 16, 2021 09:48AM ● By Julie Slama

The Acti-Vest team’s solution to help people with disabilities be able to lead an active and independent lifestyle won the top prize at the Utah High School Entrepreneur Challenge. (Photo courtesy of Erin Chan)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Juan Diego Catholic High ninth-grader Erin Chan has realized that often, people with disabilities are excluded from physical activities and sports.

She, and a group of friends, decided to do something about that.

“My goal is to create an inexpensive, wearable product that will help the visually impaired navigate without the aid of another person or white cane,” Erin shared in a presentation to the Utah High School Entrepreneur Challenge. “This device will be more discreet than the usual assistive devices since disabled people can be self-conscious about their condition.”

The group researched to discover that 70% of the 52,000 school-age children with visual impairments do not participate in a physical education program, which is against the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Their answer was to create a vest that uses ultrasonic sensors to calculate the distance between obstacles and a visually impaired wearer to warn them of nearing objects. 

“The frequency of vibration increases (as an object gets nearer to the person) as well as the intensity,” Erin said.

The Acti-Vest team’s solution won the $10,000 grand prize at the Utah High School Entrepreneur Challenge. 

More than 130 teams or individuals entered the competition, which was held virtually this year. The finals were narrowed down to the top 20 teams and was hosted by the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, a division of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, and sponsored by Zions Bank.

“(The win) means a lot, because it tells me that I can go on to support people with disabilities and help people live the lifestyle they want to live. I plan on expanding this company and using the money to further develop the vest to make it a better product,” Erin said.

Since the competition, the Acti-Vest team has filed for a patent. They also have had a blind person test the vest and have been incorporating feedback to a second prototype. 

The team, which includes sixth-grader Lana Chan, sixth-grader Eli Ekstein, eighth-grader Sam Ekstein, and sixth-grader Sara Leng, brainstormed ideas to fit their FIRST LEGO League challenge, helping people to become more active through technology, and then, talked to experts about it. 

Upon learning about the entrepreneur challenge, they decided to enter.

“We originally started out deciding between a ball that was really brightly colored and easier for visually disabled people to follow around and then we turned it into more of a thing that people can become more independent while using,” Erin said. “So, we developed something that they could wear and help them see objects around. This is where the whole idea of a wearable came from, with ultrasonic sensors and vibration motors. Then, we eventually extended it a little more so that they can use it within their daily lives as well, not just for playing a specific sport.”

The team came up with the vest name by putting together the words “active” and “vest” and then, “we also liked the idea of activist, you know, someone who deviates from social norms. And that is what we’re doing with this, we’re activists in helping blind people do something that helps them be able to now live an independent lifestyle,” she said.

Erin said that the initial prototype cost $55 to make, but with increased technology, it will cost more. She hopes that by mass-producing it, they could offer it for about $200.

“We think that’s reasonable for a medical device and not really expensive for something with this capability,” she said, adding that the team is looking at attaching the circuit boards to a piece of cloth that can attach to the vest or a T-shirt. “That will make it wearable for all different types of weather and you don’t have to keep buying a new set of clothes with a set of circuit boards. You just have one circuit that you move to each different piece of clothing. We have a business plan in the making right now and are planning to make this into a long-term project, which we’re still developing, and possibly branching out to other products.”

High School Utah Entrepreneur Challenge Student Director Peyton Williams said this year’s entries ranged from an eggshell remover to making standardized testing more equitable for all students despite their socioeconomic status.

“We had a phenomenal set of finalists this year,” Williams said. “I'm proud that Utah is home to so many impressive and entrepreneurial high school students.”

Second place and $5,000 went to Midvale’s Hillcrest High School team with their project, Pocket Garden. Tailored to novice gardeners, Pocket Garden simplifies plant purchases, connects customers with local nurseries and motivates plant care.

The Pocket Garden team included junior Zoe Liu and seniors Anna Hsu and Anya Tiwari. 

“We went through a bunch of different ideas,” Liu said. “We wanted to do something climate-related because that was a global issue that related to all of us, and we all thought it was really important. Over time, we came up with this idea of, ‘Oh, what if we do something that’s like a box that gets delivered to you with sustainable products,’ and then, we ended up with the idea of gardening. Our Pocket Garden pretty much makes gardening a lot easier and can be really helpful to the environment. It saves on shipping costs for food; it also prevents a lot of commercial pesticides and fertilizers going into the world if you’re eating your own food and can help create more oxygen which is better for air pollution.”

She said that the modernizing of gardening “makes things a lot easier and not only do you get the products, but the app also comes with a tracker that gives you reminders on when to water your plants or what time might be a good time to sow your seeds” as well as a journal to track tasks. It also provides information on what plants work well in the climate of the gardeners.

“All of our families garden quite a bit,” Liu said. “While developing the app, we were really talking about what gardening is to each of us. For my family, gardening has always been a way of almost like holding on to self-sustainability. My parents have a lot of pride in knowing that we grow and learn stuff. I like the idea that we can exist separately, and that sort of independence is empowering, regardless, if we still buy food from the grocery store. That was a little bit of a motivator for it.”