Chantilly High School seniors Kaavya Karthikeyan and Akanksha Tibrewala have been friends since preschool. During the pandemic, they put their shared interest in biomedical engineering to work and invented AutoTrem, a walker on wheels that moves forward at the press of a button and has a sensor to stop it if something is in its path. The students won a $2,500 cash prize from the Fairfax Area Student Shark Tank Challenge for their creation, and they’re planning to put that money toward getting a patent for AutoTrem, which is making a difference in the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease. We chatted with these accomplished 17-year-olds about their invention and their plans for the future.
How did you come up with this idea?
Akanksha: It was inspired by my great-grandmother. She had a paralysis on one side of her body, and it was really difficult for her to do simple tasks like walk, pick up things, sit down. And so we wanted to research more about people with mobility issues, and we found out about Parkinson’s disease, which is a common neurodegenerative disorder. It gets harder and harder for [people with the disease] to walk because your muscles are weakening. … We wanted to create an invention that could help.
What have you learned from this process?
Kaavya: I feel like I finally found what I really want to do, which is biomedical engineering. It’s just such a giving field where you’re able to make technology and see it get used. It’s like you’re seeing the change happen.
What are your plans after high school?
Akanksha: We have similar colleges on our list since we both want to go into biomedical engineering together. A couple colleges that we both have in common are Purdue and Georgia Tech because they’re known for their engineering schools.
Kaavya: We’re also planning on keeping this going through college. Hopefully, we can get it into the market.
Any updates on the patent process?
Akanksha: We are trying to go through the first step, with getting the provisional patent to get us closer to getting the full patent. We’re definitely going to apply as soon as we can so that we can be in the stage of patent pending.
How long did it take to build your walker?
Kaavya: So, we’ve been working on it for approximately two years now. I think the biggest part of this process was definitely the research. We had to find out what we needed in our walker, what would be beneficial to the people using it, and also the testing. It was very useful. We had our prototype and showed it to Parkinson’s patients, as well as their family and physical therapists. They gave us very valuable feedback.
What have you learned that you’re going to carry with you?
Akanksha: I’ve learned that even though it’s really difficult, if we can just push through, then we have something that we’re really proud of.
Kaavya: Even if you think of a solution that is so simple, you could look in the market and it would not be there. Me and Akanksha really thought that there would be an automatic walker, like “someone’s thought of that; there’s no way that it’s not on the market.” But we researched, and it was not there. … It was the simplest idea. We added some things to it that made it complex, but it was still easy for the seniors to use. You don’t need a really complex idea to make a complex solution.
Do you have advice for future innovators?
Akanksha: Find a problem that is very meaningful to you because that’s really what’s going to inspire you to make a meaningful solution.