Student-led startup working on way to help Parkinson’s patients write

SteadyScrib created from woman's love of letters exchanged with grandfather

Marisa Wexler, MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler, MS |

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SteadyScrib, a startup company led by undergraduate students at Northwestern University, is working on a pen-and-clipboard system that can make writing easier for people with Parkinson’s disease.

The company hopes to launch its pen sets by this year’s end, and it offers a waitlist for people who want to stay informed about their availability. Currently, the system can be used in physical and occupational therapy sessions at three Northwestern Medicine locations.

Izzy Mokotoff, a junior studying journalism at Northwestern and SteadyScrib’s CEO, was inspired to start the project by her grandfather, Neal Charles Andelman, better known as “Pops.”

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Growing up, Mokotoff and her grandfather regularly exchanged handwritten letters, but as his Parkinson’s progressed, writing these letters became more difficult and, eventually, impossible.

Mokotoff searched for technologies that might make writing easier for her grandfather, but she wasn’t able to find any.

“When my pops called me over a year ago and told me there were no existing technologies to enable people with Parkinson’s to physically write, I just thought my grandparents weren’t googling a solution properly. But it turns out, there truly isn’t anything out there,” Mokotoff said in a university news story.

Parkinson’s disease can cause multiple motor symptoms that make writing difficult, including tremors, abnormally slowed movements, and rigidity.

The SteadyScrib system uses a galvanized steel clipboard and a pen with a weighted, magnetic core and wide, pliable grip. Its overarching aim is to make the pen easier to hold and keep steady on the clipboard, where paper is held in place, even while patients are experiencing symptoms like tremors.

To create the tool, Mokotoff teamed up with Alexis Chan, a junior studying biomedical engineering at Northwestern who was in the same sorority.

With support and guidance from The Garage, Northwestern’s student startup space, and Northwestern’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Segal Design Institute, the students launched their startup.

“It’s inspiring to watch students identify a problem and then solve it. Izzy and Alexis did just that in a relatively short time, creating something that’s personally meaningful and yet far-reaching in its impact,” said Hayes Ferguson, the team’s principal investigator and the director of the Farley Center.

The startup’s launch was accelerated through Jumpstart — a 10-week program hosted by The Garage — in which SteadyScrib received the audience favorite and the first-place judge’s awards.

“Before Jumpstart, we used what we had to make a prototype, which literally meant a Beauty Blender on an existing pen, and magnets I got at a dollar store and just ‘arts-and-crafting’ it to see if it was a feasible solution,” Chan said.

Designing the SteadyScrib system was a process with a lot of trial and error, continually tweaking models with the aim of providing users the best possible experience.

“By week four, Alexis had her minimum viable product done,” Mokotoff said. “She was cranking out prototypes, sometimes even two full ones in a day. I didn’t think she was going to be able to do it that quickly.”

More than 10 prototypes tested by Parkinson’s patients, others

The prototype evolution was based on feedback from members of two local Parkinson’s groups, footage provided by Mokotoff’s grandparents, and interviews with people showing interest in the system.

Since SteadyScrib’s founding, more than 10 prototypes were tested by more than 40 people, with Pops having tried the first.

“It’s impressive what they accomplished in a short period of time,” said Mike Raab, executive director of The Garage.

After Pops died late last year, the team continued to work and refine its product’s design. The startup recently won a $20,000 support grant from the Venture E-Team Program.

“SteadyScrib is a beautiful reminder of the love between a grandchild and her grandfather, and the impact that Pops’ legacy can have on the lives of many,” Mokotoff said.