Free Feet treats gait freezing, a symptom which affects approximately 72% of people with Parkinson's. Every hour, someone in the UK is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, showing just how large the scale of the problem I'm trying to treat is. The inspiration behind Free Feet came from when I was discussing treatments for Parkinson's patients, at the kitchen table, with my brother, who is a movement disorders (Parkinson's) nurse. He said that there weren't many treatments available for gait freezing, so I decided to see what I could do to help. This is where the idea of Free Feet was born. I also have an emotional connection to Parkinson's as I have a neighbour who sufferers from the illness, so I knew the impact that both gait freezing, and Parkinson's can have on quality of life. This really inspired me to pursue and develop my idea, as there is no known cure for Parkinson's, finding new ways of treating it is really important.
How it works
Free Feet treats gait freezing in Parkinson's Disease. It is a laser device attached to the side of a shoe which is designed to help reduce gait freezing for Parkinson's sufferers. Gait freezing is a very common symptom which affects approximately 72% of people with Parkinson's, it is a shuffling movement in the legs and feet. The laser places a red dot on the ground in front of the user. This then changes the users walking from being automatic to non-automatic. This is really important, as in Parkinson's, there is a deficiency in the neurotransmitter (chemical) dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for movement and muscular action, so when there's a deficiency in dopamine, reduced mobility also occurs. However, the midbrain is more severely affected than the frontal lobes. Free Feet works by enabling the user to change their walking from being automatic to non-automatic, when they focus on the dot. This is really important, as it means that the user employs the frontal lobes instead of the midbrain, meaning there is more dopamine available to them, and therefore more ability for movement to occur, thus decreasing the severity of the gait freezing episode. Small scale clinical trials, which we have carried out in collaboration with the Galway Parkinson's Association have shown very positive results, with an approximate decrease in freezing severity of 40%.
Challenges I ran into
I have faced many challenges in the development of Free Feet, as being a young woman in STEM, I have always been in the minority of my peer group. I have faced the challenge of overcoming the barrier of youth, as in professional situations, such as networking events, it is hard to ensure that you and your ideas are taken seriously and that your work is appreciated for its full value. An example of this I like to share is a networking event which I attended recently, and because of my age, I was asked if I was looking for one of my parents. I thought that this was certainly a situation in which I was not being taken seriously, and overcame that challenge by explaining my presence and work.
I have also faced the challenge of balancing my work and school life, whilst working on the development of Free Feet, I have completed the A-Level equivalent exams (Irish Leaving Certificate) and earned my first choice course in University (Biotechnology). I thought that this was quite a challenge, as I had to balance my time and resources very carefully, but it worked out for the better in the end!
I also faced the challenge of learning the technical skills necessary to build the prototype of the device. Free Feet is a device which I built myself, at my kitchen table. In order to do this I needed to learn electronics, soldering and stitching skills, and they were quite the challenge to master!
Accomplishments that I'm proud of
I'm very proud that I have successfully trialled a medical device which I created at my kitchen table, and have found that it could help reduce the severity of gait freezing by such a vast percentage.
I'm really proud, that against the odds, and people telling me that it would not be possible, I've kept making progress with the commercialisation of my device. I'm very proud that I have recieved the backing of my national medical device association, the IMDA, and that they believed in me and my abilities enough to invest in my personal development.
I'm also really proud that developing my device now means, that I have, at my fingertips, the potential to help millions of people around the world suffering from Parkinson's disease. I think that it is really fantastic to be able to reach out and help others through technology, and I'm immensely proud of what I have achieved thus far.
I'm really proud of getting into the outbox incubator, its something that I never thought would have been possible for me to achieve, and I'm just delighted.
I was really proud to get the opportunity to present Free Feet to our national minister for health, and to learn that he was very impressed with it was fantastic, he said that he hopes to see it in use in the very near future.
What I learned
I learnt a lot about how a company works and how to properly forecast financial expenditure. I also learnt more about brand image and how to appropriatly convert that to the consumer. This has led to me being much more conscious regards the logo aand web presence of the business.
What's next for Free Feet
Free Feet now needs funds in order to be able to reach its full potential. This involves raising finance in order to cover the day to day running costs of the business in the immediate future, as well as funds to cover the cost of a clinical trial and product R&D.