Innovations to focus on safety and wellness for those with intellectual disabilities and the wider community
SPRINGFIELD—Lili Dwight, a founder of Galactic Smarties in Deerfield, has the idea to develop a fire alarm system so techno-savvy that it can tell the user—via a Smartwatch—where the fire is and the best route to safety.
Chris Landry, co-founder of Habit Stackr in Northampton, wants to develop an app that helps people leverage willpower to end their struggles with follow-through on daily health and wellness routines.
As the two entrepreneurs chosen to serve as Pathlight Fellows in Valley Venture Mentor’s four-month, intensive Accelerator Program, Dwight and Landry have the opportunity to develop their new technology, which will best serve people with intellectual disabilities but will also serve the wider population.
Pathlight, headquartered in Springfield, has served people with developmental and intellectual disabilities throughout western Massachusetts since 1952; Valley Venture Mentors offers support to business start-ups. The two nonprofits collaborated on the Pathlight Challenge to encourage entrepreneurs to consider people with disabilities when designing new products. The Pathlight Challenge is supported in part by a grant from the Westfield Bank Future Fund.
In January, Galactic Smarties and Habit Stackr were chosen by the mentor group to complete the Accelerator Program, along with 34 other entrepreneurs in a pool of 200 applicants from around the world. One key benefit to the two chosen entrepreneurs is that they will have a built-in test audience in the people served by Pathlight.
“We’re very excited about the people who applied,” said Ruth Banta, executive director of Pathlight, noting that 45 entrepreneurs applied to take part in the Pathlight Challenge specifically. “We think this process will expose a large number of entrepreneurs and innovators to people with disabilities and autism—and to Pathlight itself and the possibilities we offer. That whole awareness piece is really exciting for us.”
Banta said Pathlight has already been working to connect the entrepreneurs with Pathlight families and supporters “to help them get more information from people with disabilities and learn what their needs and potential are.”
Dwight said participants of Milestones, a movement, recreation and enrichment program in Hadley for adults with disabilities, helped her to prepare for the first weekend of work in the program.
“They will be a great resource when I design the user experience,” Dwight said. “Having Pathlight as a resource has been huge already in understanding the experience of communicating with a variety of people with a cognitive impairment.”
Dwight has a longtime background as a technology developer, and she has patented such innovations as walls with infrared devices installed within them that offer an alert when a person has fallen. About 18 months ago, she began working on Fire Drill—as she calls it—but she said she realized “it doesn’t matter if you build a better mousetrap if you don’t have someone who knows how to build a business around it.”
Dwight is energized and challenged by the idea of developing a product with her business partner Kristin Harkness, and she expects their alarm will evolve into one that can be customized to meet specific needs and abilities. But she said the two need help with the business end of development.
Landry has spent the bulk of his career working on communications and development with nonprofits, and Bob Dolan, the other Habit Stackr co-founder, is a cognitive neuroscientist who has focused on designing and evaluating ways to support learning for people with diverse learning abilities and challenges.
They have in mind to build an app that will help people effectively apply willpower so they can take part in regular activities that promote well-being, such as meditation, exercise and journaling.
“This was an idea that I had based on my need to be really effective because I’m self-employed and trying to figure out how to get the things done and have the impact I want to have in the world,” Landry said.
“We’re trying to help people who may need some support with attention or executive function challenges or are just frustrated by their inability to establish good routines and make them a daily habit,” he added.
In addition to being grateful for the collaboration with those served by Pathlight, Landry said his duo is also appreciative of the Valley Venture Mentors experts who can offer specific advice and knowledge around building the app.
“We need help thinking it through, taking it from idea to execution,” he said. “It is critical to have people who will be able to tell us what we don’t know.”
“We feel like what we’re doing could be really helpful in terms of Pathlight’s goals because living independently means getting things done and having good healthy habits,” Landry added. “It’s also a good fit for anyone who needs to get things done.”
Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator Program connects start-ups with experts, investors and highly engaged and collaborative peers and offers the chance to win up to $50,000 in grants to develop their business or product. Participants meet for a long weekend once a month for four months, and the program began the first weekend in February.
The Pathlight Fellows will graduate from the Accelerator Program in May, when they will also unveil their new products.
Pathlight was founded in 1952 by five mothers of young children with developmental disabilities. It was the first organization in Hampden County dedicated to serving individuals with an intellectual disability. Pathlight currently serves children, teens and adults throughout western Massachusetts with residential and employment supports, recreation classes, autism services, social skills training and performing arts programs.
Pathlight programs include Residential Supports, Shared Living, Adult Family Care, Autism Connections, Whole Children, Milestones, Valley Tees and Family Empowerment.