Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: innovation Page 1 of 3

Creativity + Innovation = Maya Varma

What drives innovation? Some trailblazers are driven by curiosity, others by the desire to solve an intractable problem. People like Maya Varma are motivated to help others.


Maya Varma, photo from the Presentation High School site

The Desire to Make a Difference

When she was 14, a close friend was taken to the hospital with an asthma attack. Maya became curious about her friend and others with lung ailments. She learned that to measure airflow in the lungs and make a diagnosis, doctors use a spirometer, a device typically costing several thousand dollars. The WHO estimates 64 million people worldwide have some form of lung disease or COPD, which includes asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

In 2014, Maya Varma wrote on her blog:

“…total deaths from COPD are expected to increase by more than 30% within the next decade. Currently, it is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. Alarmingly, almost 90% of all COPD deaths occur in developing nations, where the patients have no access to expensive spirometry equipment.”

Confidence Borne from Experience

If a low-cost diagnostic tool could be created, there was the potential to intervene early and save thousands of lives. Was that something she could design and build? She was only 15 years old and a high school sophomore. Still, from an early age, Maya had developed a keen interest in designing medical equipment. She’d entered her first science fair when she was just five years old and over the years won many honors.

nbc site

photo from the KPIX TV site

“At that young age, I was introduced to the ideas of experimentation, failure, re-design, and occasionally, the priceless reward of seeing my projects actually work.”

Maya understood that experimentation and failure were part of the creative process, and she was able to marshall the courage to strike out for uncharted territory. With the help of a small grant from Johns Hopkins and a mentor advising her via email, she began to work on her project:

“I am working to design and engineer a portable, functioning low-cost spirometer that can be used to diagnose respiratory illnesses without the assistance of a qualified health care professional.”

Was it the exuberance of youth that kept her moving forward? Was her confidence borne from past experience designing science fair projects and winning so many awards? Or was it the desire to create a device that could help people with limited access to health care. Reading about her progress, you can see she was pragmatic and methodical in her approach, first solving one problem and then moving on to the next.

Form and Function

Maya worked on the project for two years, using a 3D printer, readily available electronic components and an app that she designed. The device she created can be used as a comprehensive diagnostic system, displaying its results when connected to a smart phone or tablet via Bluetooth wireless technology.

l.doane society for science and the public

photo by L. Doane for the Society for Science and the Public

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Varma’s spirometer has three main components. First, there’s the shell, made on a 3D printer. When a person breathes into the shell, the rate of the airflow is measured by a pressure sensor as breath passes through a fine, stainless steel mesh.

The sensor converts the pressure change to digital data, which is monitored by a microcontroller and transmitted through a Bluetooth connection to a mobile app that Varma created.

Maya Varma’s pulmonary function analyzer. (Maya Varma)

The pulmonary function analyzer, photo by Maya Varma

The app computes lung performance and illustrates it on the person’s smartphone, taking into account age, gender, weight and other factors. It’s able to diagnose five different respiratory illnesses—COPD, asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and restrictive lung disease—and also has a disease management tool that allows patients to record their symptoms and test results, and track the severity of their illness.

Maya’s invention can help doctors diagnose and manage potentially fatal lung disease as well as hospital-grade machines that are simply too expensive for developing nations.

The cost of Maya’s device? About $35.

Intel’s “Junior Nobel Prize” for Innovation

Intel Science Talent Search photo

Intel Science Talent Search photo

In March, 2016, Maya’s project won Intel’s Science Talent Search Medal of Distinction for Innovation.

Here’s a fun feature story about Maya from CBS Station KPIX (a commercial is imbedded at the beginning and then the story starts):

Maya’s device is an extraordinary achievement – a creative and innovative response to solving a difficult problem. But more than that, it’s a testament to what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it – and when you have the skill, drive and confidence to overcome doubt and failure.

Always Persevere

What advice does Maya have for the rest of us?

“It can get discouraging, but you can learn a lot from your failures. Always persevere.”

Thomas Edison said genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Yes, hard work and vision are key drivers of change. With all the advances in technology and the power of an unfettered imagination, it’s inspiring to see what one person, determined to make a difference, can accomplish. Kudos to Maya Varma – a highly creative innovator – and she’s only 17.

Intel Science Talent Search

Intel Science Talent Search photo

Nirvan Mullick’s Perfect Moment

When the perfect moment presents itself, what will you do? Will you let yourself embrace it or let it pass? If you open your arms and take it in, what then?


Nirvan Mullick, photo from the website

Two years ago Nirvan Mullick, a struggling filmmaker, encountered a perfect moment and it changed his life. When I wrote about his experience, I described a moment of serendipity that blossomed into an inspiring story about a boy and his dream, captured in a lovely video that Nirvan created. Now that story has grown in ways unimaginable back then.


Caine Monroy, photo from the website

Here’s how it began: needing a door handle for his car, Nirvan drove to East LA in search of an auto parts store. He ended up at George Monroy’s shop and discovered there George’s nine-year-old son, Caine.

Caine had spent many hours hanging out at his father’s store, constructing an elaborate arcade from the discarded cardboard boxes he found there. Seeing what Caine had created from his imagination was simply amazing. Nirvan could see how much thought, care and creativity Caine put into his arcade, so he just had to stop and play and, in the process, bonded with Caine and his fanciful creation. It was a perfect moment.


Caine’s Arcade, photo from the website

To celebrate  Caine’s arcade and invite others to enjoy it, he launched a flash mob to come, play and cheer Caine on – all captured with Nirvan’s camera. His video, Caine’s Arcade, quickly went viral with over 1 million views just the first day.


Flash mob at Caine’s Arcade, from the website

This probably sounds familiar to you – Caine’s Arcade was an Internet sensation and the story reached TV news stations around the country. I wrote about it in 2012 as did scores of other bloggers and journalists. But as I recently discovered, that was just the first part of the story.

Here’s the original video about Caine’s arcade.

Caine’s Arcade from Nirvan Mullick on Vimeo.

Besides bringing customers to play Caine’s arcade, Nirvan set up a scholarship fund – at this point he’s raised over $240,000 for Caine’s education. But something else happened as well.


Caine with LA Mayor Villaraigosa, from the website


Caine held by Nirvan, Caine’s dad on the right, from the website


Some fans of Caine’s Arcade, from the website

In Huffington Post, Nirvan describes the response to the video:

A community of over 130,000 people connected to Caine’s Arcade on Facebook, and parents started to share photos of new cardboard games that their kids made after watching the film.

It quickly became clear that there were kids like Caine in every community around the world, and the question became: What can we do to foster their creativity as well?


Nirvan and Caine, from the website

Two days after posting the film, we decided to try and start a nonprofit to foster the creativity and entrepreneurship of more kids. The Goldhirsh Foundation believed in our mission, and gave us a $250,000 startup grant to form what has become the Imagination Foundation — this all happened just 5 days after the film went viral. The timely financial support combined with the viral grassroots support of parents and educators, allowed us to transform the momentum of Caine’s Arcade into something that has continued to grow.


from the website

Nirvan created the Imagination Foundation to “foster creativity and entrepreneurship in children around the world.” The Imagination Foundation’s Global Cardboard Challenge and Imagination Chapters have been embraced by children, parents and teachers from all over the globe.

Nirvan, from Huffington Post:

For me, the growth of the Cardboard Challenge is more meaningful than the viral success of the film. It represents more than a passive view; there are thousands of volunteers coming together to organize events for kids around the world.


Cardboard Challenge, from the website


Cardboard Challenge, from the website

Kids have used their cardboard arcades to raise tens-of-thousands of dollars for various charities and local causes. Educators have created design thinking challenges and open-source common core aligned curriculum for kids K-12. And the creativity of the kids continues to inspire.

Nirvan’s second video fills in the details:

Caine’s Arcade 2: From a Movie to a Movement from Nirvan Mullick on Vimeo.

How is Caine doing now? Nirvan:

Caine is now 11 and is in middle school. He is doing great!

The impact on Caine has been profound. Caine’s dad told me that before the film, Caine was behind in reading and that his school considered him “slow” and wanted to hold him back a year. After the film, Caine became a poster child for gifted children everywhere — his grades improved and he even stopped stuttering. Caine began to refer to himself as an engineer and a game designer.


Caine age 11, with Nirvan and his dad

Caine is still a regular kid who loves to work on his bike, play basketball and build things. On his 11th birthday, Caine officially “retired” from running his arcade to focus on middle school and his next big dream — starting a bike shop.

I’d like to return to the questions I asked at the beginning of this post. While Nirvan and Caine’s story has all the elements of a fairytale, there’s something there for us too. Those perfect moments are rare, if we keep our eyes open to the possibilities we’ll be able to recognize them when they appear. The challenge will be to act on them and follow through. So, with Nirvan and Caine as our inspirational guides, the take away is this: when opportunity knocks, open the door.


photo from big Ideas Fest website

Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

“Can Do” – Brad Soden’s Amazing Tank Chair

Can Do. That “can do” attitude about overcoming challenges helped make American great. We like to see ourselves as a people eager to innovate and determined to solve problems. How much the “can do” philosophy defines the American character today may be open for debate. But I’d like to share with you the story of one man who just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. His name is Brad Soden, a former veteran, fireman and plumber, who found an innovative way to give disabled vets and others the means to regain an active, engaged life.

When people loose the use of their legs they also loose something the rest of us take for granted – the ability to get from here to there without even thinking about it. Wheelchairs help, but they’re designed for smooth, friendly surfaces – floors, sidewalks and streets.  If you have a yen to strike out across a grassy field, move along a dirt path or visit a sandy beach you’re flat out of luck. Until Brad Soden found a way, there was no way. You were stuck on smooth.


Liz and Brad Soden from the Tank Chair website

Brad had a very personal motivation – a car accident left his wife Liz wheelchair bound. The Sodens were outdoors people, loved hiking and camping. But after the accident, that all changed. Liz couldn’t just glide her wheelchair down a woodsy path. A bond that united their family was fractured. Brad was determined to do something about it, to find a way to give Liz the kind of mobility she had before the accident that damaged her spine.

Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek2

Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

He was used to working with his hands, but creating a device that Liz could use to navigate rough terrain was an almost insurmountable task. Without any formal training as an engineer or even a college degree, Brad’s efforts failed again and again.

The first challenge was the motor. He tried gasoline and diesel. No go. Then he switched to electric. Moving on a smooth surface is one thing – but as soon as the wheelchair left the road it would get stuck. To navigate a field, or difficult terrain, you’d need oversized tires – but any motor that could fit on a wheelchair was too puny to power the tires. Wires would melt, motors burn up. Brad’s off-road electric wheelchair had hit a dead end.

Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Joshua Green continues the story:

Engineers Soden consulted advised him to give up. “They kept saying, ‘According to the laws of physics, what you’re trying to do will not work,’ ” he says, laughing. “Well, according to the law of physics, bumblebees and helicopters aren’t supposed to fly, but somehow they get off the ground.”

Brad refused to quit.

The breakthrough came one day in the garage with Liz’s dad, Barry. “We were just sitting out there,” Soden says, “and he says to me, ‘Man, you know what’d be cool? If we could put tracks on it, like a tank.’ ” Soden felt as if he’d been hit by lightning. “That’s when I knew exactly what it was going to be,” he says. “It made so much sense.”


photo from the Tank Chair website

He still needed to solve some technical problems. He reached out to some robotic experts and, with their advice, he found a way to make it work. He calls his invention “Tank Chair.”


Tank Chairs from the website

Joshua Green writes:

To most people, the chair is a stunning piece of equipment. But to Soden it represents something much bigger and more important—an assault on the idea that a physical handicap, no matter how severe, should constrain a person’s ability to live the life he wishes to.

Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

Tankchair LLC is a family affair run out of a small industrial garage in North Phoenix. Although Tankchair is a business, the enterprise has the feel of a cause. Every chair is customized to the unique and demanding needs of the client, and behind every one is a story.

Here’s a terrific video from Bloomberg TV that tells the Tank Chair story.

Since hooking up with the Independence Fund, Tankchair has focused almost exclusively on veterans, whom Soden often visits to take measurements and learn about their hobbies and passions. He also tries to deliver the chairs himself when he can, because there’s nothing like seeing someone do something he had never imagined being able to do again—playing on a football field with his son, going hunting, mowing the lawn.

Here’s a link to Joshua Green’s story about Brad Soden and the Tank Chair and a link to the Tank Chair site.

I find the Tank Chair story very inspiring. It’s just amazing what one person can accomplish when they put their mind to it. Brad’s determination not to quit, his belief that if he kept trying he’d find a way to make it work, was key to overcoming the roadblocks. Equally important was being able to see solutions where others see problems. When Brad’s father-in-law said “put tracks on it, like a tank” it made all the difference.

“Can do” isn’t simple, it takes grit, a firm belief in the importance of what you’re trying to accomplish and a determination to keep going. But that’s what innovation is all about.




2 women + 1 innovative idea = 7,500,000 lives transformed

Where does an innovative idea come from? Do you wake up one day and say, “okay, time for a change?” Does it come in a flash of inspiration? Or blossom like a desert flower?


photo by Moyan Brenn

I think innovative ideas come from struggle tempered by experience. They grow from the desire to meet a challenge, solve a problem, make a difference. That’s what happened to two women teaching in El Alto, Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.


photo from the Pro Mujer site

In 1990 Lynne Patterson and Carmen Velasco were teaching young children in Bolivia. They realized to really help the children break out of the cycle of poverty, they would have to help their mothers.


Carmen and Lynne from the early days of Pro Mujer

Most of the mothers struggled with poverty, couldn’t read or write, were plagued by disease, abuse and often lived without hope. Lynne and Carmen clearly saw the need for change, but how to do it?

They also saw hard-working women who would do anything to make a better life for their children. They needed opportunity and a support system. In what they call their “kitchen table” effort, Lynne and Carmen decided they would find an innovative way to pry open opportunity’s door.


Pro Mujer photo

They set up a training program where the mothers could learn, support and encourage each other. Lynne and Carmen taught basic skills in business, health and leadership. They soon realized that these women needed access to capital in order to put what they were learning into practice.


Pro Mujer photo

With a small grant from USAID, they added financial services and micro-lending to their health and human development teaching – taking a holistic approach to helping the women and their families. They called their efforts Pro Mujer (For Women) and  today it’s one of Latin America’s most successful development and micro-finance organizations for women.


photo from the Pro Mujer site

Here’s a video from the Pro Mujer site that shows how one woman’s family was helped by their efforts:


Pro Mujer builds solidarity, the women help each other and learn from each other. It has a loan repayment rate of 99+%. Lynne and Carmen built the organization to a certain point, then turned it over to professional management so it could offer a greater variety of financial help to the women.

The video below is a striking example of what their innovative approach was able to accomplish. While the first video is more folksy, more immediate, this one is more elegant and yet strangely distant. Still, both of them leave you with similar feelings and both get their message across.

If you want to learn more, here’s a podcast presentation with Lynne describing the origins and goal of Pro Mujer.


photo from the Pro Mujer site

Perhaps it all comes down to determination. Lynne and Carmen just kept moving forward, taking a simple idea, building on it, nourishing their vision until it developed a life of its own. I’m sure they are forceful, committed people. I’m sure they also have a bit of the dreamer in them. You have to think big and push to make things happen. But when you do, and keep at it, you can surprise yourself with what you can accomplish. That’s the power of their dedicated partnership and devotion to the innovative idea that became Pro Mujer – it’s transformative.  Millions of people can attest to that.


Lynne Patterson and Carmen Velasco in a photo from Pro Mujer

Lynne and Carmen are not unique. There are other people in the development community who have traveled a similar path, made similar discoveries, found similar solutions. But this story doesn’t end with them.

I’d like to leave you with one last image. Because beyond the rhetoric and the statistics, it all comes down to helping one generation make a better life for the next. That’s something any parent would want for their child. And perhaps that is the greatest gift that these two women have left to so many others.


Page 1 of 3