On the far side of Newfoundland in a seaside town near St. John’s, Cathy Smallwood got an email at 8:47 a.m. Thursday to say her mother had just opened her fridge — in Ottawa.
It caught Smallwood’s attention — in Ottawa it was just 7:17, much earlier than her 89-year-old mother usually gets up in the apartment where she insists on living on her own. But then Smallwood remembered her mother, Nadine Garrett, had a doctor’s appointment that morning, and was likely just off to an early start.
The digital bulletin had been triggered by a small motion sensor stuck to Garrett’s refrigerator door. The gizmo, invented by Toronto tech firm GoodRobot with the help of George Brown College students, sends a signal to an Internet hub that can be programmed for all kinds of alerts. Not only does it send an email or text message when the refrigerator door is opened — a sign the independent matriarch is up and about — it will also send an alert if the fridge door has not been opened by 10 a.m.
“At first she didn’t like me knowing every time she opened the fridge,” said Smallwood.
“But if she also wants to live on her own, there have to be compromises — and this gives us peace of mind.”
Each email also goes to Smallwood’s brother in Ottawa and to a family friend, just in case Smallwood and her brother are out of Internet range.
“It’s triple insurance for us,” she says.
“Sometimes I worry a bit if I’ve slept in and I think I’m not going to get to the fridge door on time,” she admitted, “but I value my independence and this seems to provide some assurance to Cathy and the others that I’m alive and well.”
If she also wants to live on her own, there have to be compromises.
The fridge door sensor, which costs about $300 to have installed and then $36 per month, is one of several devices designed by Toronto computer whiz Alan Majer and pilot-tested by George Brown students, both in test kitchens on campus and in the homes of 18 families recommended by the Toronto Memory Program. The students found several ways to make it less cumbersome and quicker to install.
It’s the kind of applied research being done through a growing number of partnerships between community colleges and entrepreneurs, for which the federal government earmarked another $10 million in its recent budget.
George Brown students have helped with projects ranging from testing recipes for people with Parkinson’s disease and cancer to designing a shirt that allows a patient to wear a heart monitor more comfortably.
“Our industry partners get access to our students, our facilities, our networks, and in turn our students gain the practical and soft skills from product development and project management,” said Robert Luke, George Brown’s vice-president of research and innovation.
In Ontario, some 1,500 college students took part in applied research for which they were paid in 2012, working with more than 500 companies. And community college students can help entrepreneurs actually build their products, noted Luke, as well as test them.
“These partnerships help create jobs — we’re future-proofing the economy — and also teach our students the literacy of innovation.”
Majer thought his prototype was pretty much ready for market until George Brown students gave it a run-through.
“That alone was huge,” said Majer, who called the student rate of pay a “bargain” compared to the steep charges of consultants that often are out of the reach of small entrepreneurs.
“We could not have afforded to do this kind of research on our own,” he said. “We’d be nuts not to have partnered with the college.”
Nursing students interviewed the families after the trial to get their thoughts on several versions of Majer’s motion-sensor alert systems — also used on medicine cabinets and countertops where pill bottles are kept, and for doors where there is a risk of someone wandering outside. Some of the families suggested they’d like something that sounds an alarm or flashes lights if the stove is left on — which Majer designed and now sells for $99 each.
These college-industry partnerships can also lead to jobs. Majer hired computer systems technology student Sam Zhang after he graduated.
“This project-based work really motivates students, because we can go out into the field afterwards with real experience,” said Zhang, 27. There were no installation instructions, for starters, so students had to figure it out. They had to learn how to approach clients with dementia without being intrusive. They had to remember not to leave anything behind that would mean a disruptive return visit.
“We spent a lot of time worrying about how not to mess up,” said Zhang. “But it was also exciting and very helpful, in bridging what we learned with knowing how to use it.”