TEDxEastVan: Paul Fijal hopes his team's biomedical innovation can help families coping with autism

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      The University of British Columbia has been instrumental in the launch scores of companies, including MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates, Westport Innovations, and Xenon Pharmaceuticals. 

      A 23-year-old lead biomedical engineer at Awake Labs, Paul Fijal, is hoping that his team can join a growing list of success stories that originated at the Point Grey campus.

      The company's origins go back to an entrepreneurship and engineering  course at UBC. Students worked on creating a wearable device to help people with autism spectrum disorders and their families better understand their behaviours and changes in emotions.

      The device, called Reveal, won the Global Impact Competition last year as the most innovative proposal.

      It resulted in the team leader, UBC mechanical-engineering student Andrea Palmer, being accepted into the Singularity University graduate studies program, an honour granted to only 80 students each year.

      Palmer has continued working full-time on developing the technology and she's the CEO of Awake Labs, which was incorporated in September 2015. Fijal went travelling after graduating from UBC and rejoined the team in January.

      On Saturday (April 23), Fijal will be a speaker at the daylong TEDxEastVan event being held at the York Theatre.

      "It's a good way of spreading more awareness about what autism actually is and what we're trying to do to help families that are living with it," Fijal told the Straight by phone. 

      Awake Labs is developing an ankle bracelet that might give clues into an autistic child being on the verge of a meltdown. This is accomplished by collecting readings of sweat, heart rate, and skin temperature from sensors.

      Algorithms that the company is developing will enable this information to be read on a smartphone.

      "We are designing it to be interacted by parents, by families, and by, eventually, maybe these kids who are wearing the devices," Fijal said.

      The data could be used to help families understand optimal times to implement relaxation and calm-down routines, which can prevent a child from engaging in behaviour that could injure themselves.

      "We're looking at physiological signals to do this," Fijal explained.

      He added that parents can compare this data with things that they're already monitoring, such as diet and behaviour, to gain more insight into what might be triggering their children's emotional responses.

      According to Fijal, the company will launch a crowdfunding campaign in May and is aiming to release the wearable device by December.

      Paul Fijal is one of 12 featured speakers at the daylong TEDxEastVan on Saturday (April 23) at the York Theatre. More information and tickets are available here.

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