Photo courtesy of SMU

An SMU student’s concern for his grandmother, who was experiencing the devastating, frustrating effects of Parkinson’s disease, led to an invention and a start-up company that could enhance the quality of life for those living with tremors and shaking.

Prior to beginning his marketing and creative writing studies at Southern Methodist University, Raleigh Dewan had seen his grandmother struggling to eat the Southern dinners she had always prepared for the family. Her hands trembled and food spilled everywhere due to Parkinson’s disease, and this was so troubling that he decided to do something.

Dewan had grown up on film sets, he says during a recent Founders’ Award presentation, watching his two older brothers – one a filmmaker and the other an actor. There, he’d developed a fascination for the massive cameras that swung silently on motion-canceling gimbal joints to smoothly capture the exciting action scenes. Contemplating his 95-pound grandmother’s trembling hands, he wondered if this stabilizing film technology on a micro-scale might offer a pathway to create a spoon that stayed steady.

Dewan began to research Parkinson’s disease and available eating-assist devices. He found weighted spoons with heavy handles and some motorized versions already on the market but saw them as prohibitively expensive and of limited efficacy. He began thinking about an affordable, mechanical solution that would solve tremors, and he developed his first ideation of SteadiSpoon — a self-stabilizing eating utensil that allows people suffering from disorders that cause shaking – such as Parkinson’s and essential tremors – to regain their ability to feed themselves with ease and dignity. The entrepreneurship class of Simon Mak, professor of practice at SMU’s Cox School of Business, made it possible, he notes.

The Lyle School of Engineering helped to seed Dewan’s project. As a National Academy of Engineers’ Grand Challenge Scholar, he received $2,000 from a designated fund administered by the Hart Center for Engineering Leadership. A year later, Dewan also won a $5,000 grant for Best Technology Idea from SMU’s Hart Institute of Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Big iDeas 2021 Fall Pitch Competition.

Dewan and classmate Mason Morland and Johns Hopkins student Emily Javedan are now collaborating in a medical-tech startup named for its core product, SteadiSpoon.

Their work has earned them thousands of dollars in seed money and invaluable mentoring at SMU, including through participation in 2021/22 Big iDeas Pitch and Business Plan Competitions, events that give undergraduates the opportunity to win financial support for socially conscious, problem-solving ventures.

SteadiSpoon was also awarded a $20,000 grant from VentureWell, which helps students advance their invention through a combination of funding, training, mentorship, and networking with peers and industry experts.

It is estimated that approximately 11 million Americans and 80 million people globally suffer from Parkinson’s or essential tremors. Disabling hand tremors can lead to depression, poor self-esteem and weight loss, all conditions that contribute to a patient’s decline.

“You know, for our entire team, this is not just an academic challenge, or a venture pushed to see if it could make money,” Morland says. “We really do feel that we are doing something good, and our efforts will change lives for the better. That recognition is a very big motivator – and a reward in itself.”

Bruce McIntyre, Executive Director of the Parkinson’s Foundation of Oklahoma, conducted a consumer research survey that helped SteadiSpoon home in on the target demographic, product pricing, and other factors. He also pointed the team to partners who could help get the SteadiSpoon solution to consumers.

In June the Texas Business Hall of Fame awarded Dewan the Lucy Billingsley Future Texas Business Legend Award of $15,000 for demonstrating exceptional entrepreneurial aspirations and excellence.

Dewan’s grandmother died in 2021, but her story and spirit continue to inspire the project on every level, the team says.

As Morland shared, “We had a very tender moment at the TCU Pitch Competition when Raleigh was asked to speak about his grandmother and what it means to him to work on SteadiSpoon.”