Every 90 minutes, one person is diagnosed and another one passes away from ALS disease. ALS is a rare and incurable progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the parts of the brain that oversees most of the skeletal muscles in the human body.
The Israeli startup EyeControl has set out to improve the quality of life for those living with ALS and other patients that are “trapped” inside their body, by developing a communication device that tracks their eye movements.
The idea for the product came about when Or Ratzkin’s late grandmother, Julie Kaplan, passed away after a long battle with ALS disea. At that time Or understood the pathology of the disease and the fact that it prevented his grandmother from communicating with the world. Every basic question such as “how are you?” and “how are you feeling?”, resulted in a few short sentences, and no conversation lasted more than 20 minutes.
Two years ago Ratzkin partnered with Itai Kronberg, a software developer that was involved in social entrepreneurship and whose friend Asher Shemesh had died of muscular dystrophy, Tal Kelner whose grandfather had passed away from ALS, and the “Prize4Life” foundation headed by Shai Rishoni, himself an ALS patient, in the hopes of developing a device that would enable ALS patients to communicate easily with their surroundings.
Due in part to the founding team’s personal connection to the company’s mission, they have poured significant effort to create a reliable, mobile, and inexpensive product for this great cause.
The request to develop the product actually came from the “Prize4Life” foundation two years ago after Itai sought to help out his close friend. He approached Tal and Or, who were already familiar with the problem, joining forces to start developing the product.
Significantly cheaper than competing products
EyeControl’s product makes it possible to translate the patient’s eye movements into speech and text. The product enables the user to signal for help in situations of distress at the most basic communication levels. The user can express themself by either building sentences using virtual keyboards based on the alphabet or through predefined phrases that are saved in the system.
At this point, the device does not include a screen, which helps to keep the costs down. The team believes that their device should be available for every patient around the world, regardless of their socioeconomic status, allowing them to better interact with their environment.
Their product is not the only one in the market, as there are quite a few devices that offer a channel of “eyes only” communication, but their cost ranges from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for each device. At these prices, the devices are inaccessible to most people. The Israeli device has not only overcome the price barrier, but also lets the users communicate freely by themselves whereas the existing devices require help while using them or need to be placed at a direct angle in front of the patient’s eyes, a thing that may endanger their lives in case they need immediate help.
The system itself is comprised of a processor with a speaker and headphone output, that together with a camera is located in front of the user’s eye to track their pupil movements, serving as a kind of an “intuitive joystick”. By having the feedback sent audibly instead of on a distracting screen, it allows the user to be more present in their surroundings.
“Over the past two years we have tried to work through the main needs of ALS patients regarding communication in order to allow them to communicate with their surroundings comfortably, at any time and in any place,” says Ratzkin, adding that, “We have put a lot of effort into developing a device that will be accessible, inexpensive, simple and wearable. We have switched out the screen that is the visual feedback for the patient with a vocal feedback using a headphone, so the user hears what he wants to express instead of seeing it. This turns the device into a wearable, so the user is not dependent on any screen and is not restricted to specific situations during the day in order to communicate.”
In hopes of getting the word out about their innovation, the company attended a local competition organized by The Venture, and was chosen to represent Israel in the finals of the worldwide competition. At the beginning of the competition, there were close to 3,000 competing entrepreneurs. As part of the preparation for the competition, the team attended a “bootcamp” of sorts in Oxford where they took part in different lectures and workshops in the fields of entrepreneurship and development. The competition is now at the internet voting stage where anyone can vote for their favorite project. Of course, you are welcome to take a peek at EyeControl’s voting page and help them win.
The company is a graduate of 8200 alumni program’s social program, and is expected to take part in MassChallenge’s accelerator. The company is now in its initial funding round by private investors along with support from the Cheif Scientist’s Office. So while the device is still under development, the founders have said that they intend to keep the retail price in the range of a few hundred dollars, somewhere between $400 to $500.