What if there was an easier way for people with disabilities to perform an everyday task most of us take for granted? An Ontario-based duo is on a mission to make getting behind the wheel a more effortless, accessible experience for those who are physically challenged.
It was at the Synapse Competition awards on March 20, held virtually this year to respect social distancing, when Shanjay Kailayanathan and Hanna Haponenko’s company was awarded $5,000. The competition — dubbed “Ontario’s premier life science pitch competition” — is put on by Hamilton, Ont.’s Innovation Factory and Synapse Consortium, and helps scientists and inventors bring their brilliant ideas to market and attract investment. Applicants are evaluated in four phases, with the final round seeing the top-ranked teams deliver a final pitch. Axcessiom Technologies took home third place in the inaugural Praxis Prize, given by the Praxis Spinal Cord Institute in partnership with Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation, to entrepreneurs working on innovations designed to better the lives of people living with spinal cord injuries.
This is the essence of Axcessiom. The software and electronics manufacturing startup’s mission is to create technology and accessible products that enhance and improve lives. Their first foray — the innovation for which they received the award — is a Driver Assistance System that will allow people with disabilities to drive their vehicles safely, efficiently and economically. “My idea is to use facial-gesture recognition to activate secondary vehicle functions using various facial gestures,” explains Kailayanathan. “The way our system works is by having a camera placed in the vehicle where it has a clear sight of the driver’s face. When the driver makes a specific gesture, the system will perform the corresponding action.” So, if a driver, say, winks her right eye for two seconds, the right turn signal is activated. Or if she sticks out her tongue, the horn sounds. “Users will be able to choose their preferred gesture to a corresponding action via an app. Not only is this system safer — it allows the driver to keep both hands on their hand controls — it’s also more reliable, since the gestures will always be recognized, as long as the driver is looking out of the windshield in clear focus of the camera.” If anyone knows how urgently needed this type of technology is, it’s Kailayanathan.
Life can turn on a dime. The adage is cliché, but the message matters. Most of us don’t mull over the way life can forever change in the blink of an eye — how things can swiftly take a turn for the worst, leaving easier times in the rear-view mirror. It’s generally not something teenagers give much thought to.
Back in 2011, Stephen Harper was prime minister, Dion Phaneuf was captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs and 15-year-old Kailayanathan was a typical teen. He was a diligent student, had plenty of friends and life was good — until everything changed. “One day I was a normal high school student, and the next, I was driving, lost control and was in a serious car accident, leaving me a quadriplegic in intensive care fighting for my life,” he says. His neck was broken. He also sustained a spinal cord injury that was deemed irreparable, leaving him paralyzed. “To this day, I have no voluntary movement in my fingers or below my chest,” he says. He was hospitalized for the next six months, relying on others for pretty much all of his physical needs. Days were spent in bed, working with a high school teacher so he could keep up with some of his studies.
Life post-crash was arduous, and Kailayanathan took time off school to focus on his health. “When I got out of the hospital, I did one course at a time and went to physiotherapy reguarly to help strengthen the function I did have, and to regain as much function as possible,” he says. This was the routine for two years until he went back to school, where he graduated with honours. “There were times I felt like giving up, but I knew I had a future ahead of me.”
After getting early acceptance into Ontario Tech University for software engineering, Kailayanathan continued to miss his independence. “My parents drove me back and forth to my classes, spending nearly an hour each way in the car. Sometimes I took public transit, and that took two hours each way,” he says. “I was wasting several hours a day commuting. This wasn’t doing anyone good, and my grades were suffering because of it. That’s when I decided I wanted to drive again.”
With a determined, tenacious spirit, Kailayanathan says he managed to convince his reluctant parents to let him get back behind the wheel. “They were worried about my safety, especially since I’d have to drive with hand controls. But I talked them into it and started the process.” He completed a special driver assessment and had hand controls installed in the family van. Once he got the go-ahead from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, and obtained both his G2 and G licences, he was driving again. “It made a huge impact on my quality of life and the lives of those around me. For many years I was confined to a wheelchair with almost no independence. But once I started driving, I had freedom. To me, it has been the alternative to getting my leg function back.”
As soon as Kailayanathan overcame that obstacle, he was met with another one: He wasn’t satisfied with the way the hand controls worked. “You typically use one hand to control the gas and brake, and the other hand to steer. It works well for those purposes, but because both of my hands are always in use while driving, it makes it hard — or sometimes impossible — to control other vehicle functions, such as wipers, lights and windows,” he explains. “Not only is it inconvenient, it’s unsafe.” It turns out this is a common complaint among drivers who use hand controls. “Unfortunately, any good solution for this issue costs an unrealistically large amount of money. It’s about $40,000-plus for voice-activated controls, but they don’t work well in noisy environments — imagine trying to use Alexa or Siri in a loud vehicle. Cheaper options are things like push buttons that are screwed onto a vehicle’s dash to control single functions, in my case, to activate the wipers, but it’s still not practical. You still have to remove your hands from the controls to push the button,” he says.
“I have an engineering background and I experience this issue almost every day, and as someone who has always wanted to build something to better the lives of others, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to come up with my business idea,” Kailayanathan says. He founded Axcessiom Technologies in July 2018, got the company incorporated and got to work with the help of Ontario Tech’s business incubator, Brilliant Catalyst.
“It will be nice to give others the safety and independence they deserve through a more cost-effective product than anything that’s out there now.”
Today, at 24, Kailayanathan is in his fourth year at Ontario Tech. Before applying for the Synapse Competition in 2019, he brought on a business partner. Hanna Haponenko is the company’s managing partner and director of technology, and she’s a second-year PhD student studying psychological and physical dynamics of vision and attention at McMaster University in Hamilton. She met Kailayanathan at a conference in Toronto and has since been applying her work to the principles of human and computer vision to “enhance the integration of vehicle safety and human performance for drivers with disabilities,” she explains. “I’m attempting to spatially map out the attentional constraints of your typical driver. I hope to apply the knowledge of how drivers perceive the space around them when they drive to computer vision algorithms,” she says. “I also learned how to program in my graduate studies, so I’ve been applying that to our software development.” Not only has Axcessiom opened a new opportunity for her work, she says learning about the mechanics of developing a startup has appealed to her. “Right now, Axcessiom is putting most of its energy into conducting user studies for product validation and development. I’ve found my skills of designing and implementing experiments, backboned with rigorous ethical practices, has really helped us understand how to craft appropriate user studies.”
In terms of what comes next for the company, 2020 and 2021 are both set to be busy years. The team is close to having a working in-vehicle demo and are looking at contracts to have their proprietary software and hardware developed. (They’ll have to meet the necessary safety standards, of course.) The hope is the finished product should cost $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the types of secondary functions that will be controlled. “We’d like to lower the cost over time and offer this product to a larger market, but we’re focused on disabled drivers for now,” says Kailayanathan. He and Haperneko are also looking to secure funding, which will get them closer to having a market ready product by winter. “It will be nice to give others the safety and independence they deserve through a more cost-effective product than anything that’s out there now,” he says. “Our product will also allow people who are currently ineligible to drive back behind the wheel.”